Interview with Sandro Debono, curator of the Malta Museum of Fine Arts
Malta is a place for grand projects: the capital Valletta itself was built in just a few years to be the most splendid and formidable fortress-city in the world. We were not at all surprised when Sandro Debono told us, his eyes shining with enthusiasm, about the ambitious goal of rethinking the National Museum of Fine Art into a model XXI-century art museum.
1. Can you describe the National Museum of Fine Arts as it is now?
The National Museum of Fine Arts, established as an independent museum in 1974, is an art history museum based on Italian models. The collection on display is chronological and spans from the late medieval and early renaissance to the Maltese modern and contemporary period. There is an emphasis on schools, including French and Dutch artworks although the seventeenth and eighteenth century Italian schools are very well represented. Interpretation is limited to captions and technology also has a limited presence.
2. Which are the limits of its current form?
The museum is a treasure throve of artworks for the connoisseur but with limited access for the non-specialist. A basic knowledge of art history is required and the threshold for access would still be comparatively high. The lack of technology makes it unattractive for younger publics and local communities are as yet peripheral to the museum narrative. It lacks the broad appeal and access usually associated with 21st century art museums inspite of the fact that it is to all intents and purposes a national museum.
3. How are you planning to address those limits in the new museum?
The new museum seeks to rethink a traditional museum display into a narrative of themes and related objects. This museum shall be known as MUŻA which stands for the project’s vision and key values which it enshrines, recently also recognised by the Network of European Museums Organisations (NEMO) as ‘overlapping … with the values NEMO promotes’ and which the project ‘even supersedes’.[i] MUŻA is an acronym for Mużew Nazzjonali tal-Arti (Maltese for National Museum of Art). It also refers to the muses; the mythological figures from classical antiquity inspiring creativity and, to all intents and purposes, the etymology of the word ‘museum’. MUŻA is also the Maltese word for inspiration.
We hope to address the limits of the current museum by developing a new museum experience that is layered, in the sense of appealing to publics with different knowledge levels. We seek to recognize art and discussion as being equally important and develop a forward-looking interpretation strategy to promote access to stories through art works on display. This participatory experience goes beyond visits to the gallery spaces and includes access to public spaces, some of which will be free, where discussion can happen and ancillary services complement the MUZA experience can function.
4. Which is the most difficult/challenging aspect you are going to face during the development of the MUZA project?
I think that the most difficult aspect of the project is the fear of change. MUZA is a challenge to rethink the way we understand or expect museums to function. I would not like to be misunderstood, in the sense that the project has alot of support from within and also from the local artistic and creative community. The project is challenging at core in view of the fact that the potential outreach it seeks to develop goes beyond the traditional museum experience. Rather than be at the service of society, as the definition of museum promoted by the International Committee of Museums goes, MUZA seeks to be with the community implying a gradual interface with participatory curatorial methodologies which also seek to promote visual literacy as a key value within the museum narrative of display philosophy.
5. How do you see the role of technology in the MUZA project?
Technology is indeed crucial but, within the remit of the MUZA project it should be understood as a means to an end and is not being conceived to take over or replace the presence of original artworks. If used in response to a vision and a complimenting strategy, technology can be a powerful tool within the remit of a broad interpretation strategy.
6. In general, how do you see the Maltese cultural situation right now? And in the future?
Malta is going through exciting times as we move closer to 2018 when Valletta, our capital city, becomes European capital of culture. MUZA is part of this renewal which is sustaining an expanding cultural sector and promoting the island’s rich cultural heritage in new ways. In 2018, however, and particularly thanks to MUZA, we will have the right tools to approach the various publics still detached from art. The challenge we face is to sustain this momentum after 2018 and beyond. It is indeed an exciting challenge but am convinced we’ll all rise to the occasion.