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Touchy-feely vibe at visitor centre

Even if you are not around for the summer solstice, you can experience the astronomical phenomenon by pressing a button.

Even if you are not around for the summer solstice, you can experience the astronomical phenomenon by pressing a button.

If you want to grasp how ancient man moved massive boulders, all you have to do is try your hand at doing it.

At the visitor centre – the stepping stone to understanding the megalithic temples of Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim – sightseers get to test the concept, sliding a brick over spherical stone rollers to experience the distinction when friction is eliminated.

They can also play with slabs of globigerina and coralline limestone to feel the diverse textures and their use and the touchy-feely experience carries on with a sample of the temples’ shelter fabric up for grabs.

The displays in the visitor centre’s interpretation area, conceived and manufactured in house by Heritage Malta resources, are a departure from the book-on-wall concept, going beyond digital interaction into the hands-on experience.

The idea is to handle materials and perform simple tasks to get in touch with the landscape, based on the principle of learning through a “constructivist” technique, said Reuben Grima, senior curator prehistoric sites, Heritage Malta, which runs the centre.

Rather than being lectured to, the displays encourage the visitors to work things out for themselves.

The prehistoric site was introduced by a five-minute audiovisual presentation but the response to using only the language of images and no words was still being gauged, Dr Grima said.

The interpretation area also houses the first purpose-built space for children and an educational programme is being piloted.

Even the astronomical aspect of the site is touched on and every time a button is pressed the spring equinox, or summer solstice, for example, can be simulated.

The visitor centre may not have been a popular building during its construction but, once the public saw the end result, a major swing in opinion was noted, Dr Grima maintained.

“Now that it has been completed and is being actively enjoyed, the public is sharing the vision and embracing the ideas,” he said, putting the resistance to the project, including the temple shelters, down to fear of change.

“You have to listen to and respect criticism but you cannot let it stop you if you remain convinced of what you are doing... It was quite lonely along the way but many judgements were premature,” he said.

The centre has been open since April but was officially inaugurated last month during an event that cost about €63,000, raising the Labour Party’s eyebrows.

Over the last six months, 30,000 visitors have streamed through it but, initially, tour operators on pre-set programmes were bypassing it and going directly to the site. A “dramatic” shift was recently observed as guides started to discover its benefits, Dr Grima said.

The building is intended to be as inconspicuous as possible. In fact, the paint colour is the result of studying samples against the background of the landscape in different light, seasons and from various distances to determine what blended most.

“This was the most neutral against the typical vegetation and weathered rock,” Dr Grima said, adding that, as planned, the centre did not rise above the skyline and was “wrapped into the hillside”.

For the curator, it is an example of how contemporary architecture can blend into rural surroundings and also be a model for energy-efficient climate control.

A 21-century building without air conditioners in public spaces is almost inconceivable but the centre does not have any and, in October, the temperature is comfortable despite the shut windows.

It boasts passive environmental control, based on the time-honoured principles of historical buildings – good insulation and louvres against direct sunlight – but using modern materials.

The building’s height, combined with the position of the windows, encourages air currents and cross-ventilation. The walls are an “insulation sandwich” – a thick layer of rock, wool and air spaces – and the double glazing and external shelters ensure it is cosy in winter and cool in summer.

Walter Hunziker, the Berne-based architect who had won the international competition from among over 40 worldwide submissions, wanted a building that would “read modern man’s point of view of the landscape,” Dr Grima said.

“It had to be immediately distinct from its rural surroundings but a window onto them at the same time. A minimal and functional design, based on the Cartesian grid, it remains unpretentious and respectful of the context,” he said.

The centre is divided into wings for services and interpretation and, finally, the two plastic boxes that served as toilets have been replaced by proper facilities.

But the job is not over yet and ways to continue improving access to the site are still being considered while the Museum of Natural History is developing nature trails in the archaeological park.

“The natural setting is a key value and should be engaged with the cultural aspect,” Dr Grima said.

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