The proper development of Maltese museums is being hindered by gaps in the law and in policy, according to Malta’s national representative at the European Museum Academy.

The word ‘museum’, for example, is mentioned only three times in the Cultural Heritage Act, meaning anyone could open and manage a museum institution, says Sandro Debono, MUŻA’s former senior curator.

Sandro Debono: “The knowledge is there.”Sandro Debono: “The knowledge is there.”

The sector also lacks a museum registration scheme, clear and accessible policies regulating museum practice and a national association of Maltese museums similar to those overseas, which would ensure standards across the board.

From the museum public’s point of view, the museum shop, the exhibition spaces and the galleries are one experience. So is the restaurant or the café.- Sandro Debono

As part of the European academy, Debono, who was the brains behind the art museum MUŻA, volunteers his expertise to advance knowledge in museology in Europe.

He spoke to Times of Malta in the wake of negative reactions to the perceived trend of opening catering establishments in heritage sites to support them financially.

State agencies are venturing into the hospitality business, raising fears among heritage campaigners about the overcommercialisation of cultural sites, some referring to it as “privatising heritage by stealth”.

This could give rise to conflicts of interest in a country where there is no lack of restaurants, according to environmental and heritage NGOs.

Recently, Heritage Malta, which ended last year with a €1.4 million deficit, controversially entered into an agreement with a private operator to trial run a catering venture inside Mdina’s Vilhena Palace.

It is also studying the possibility of extending a café model already in place at MUŻA across other cultural sites.

But the issue goes beyond museums, with the Water Services Corporation planning a café for a British-era pumping station in Gozo’s Mġarr harbour, Wasteserv aborting a plan for one at Romeo Romano Gardens and Transport Malta applying to build a restaurant at the Ta’ Xbiex seafront.

In any case, the ‘museum thinker’ maintains Malta does not yet have the right working model for this development.

The perceived need to ‘commercialise’ may be coming from a much bigger and more pressing need for museum institutions to be financially sustainable, Debono acknowledges.

“But, without going into the reasons why a good number of these have placed themselves in a corner, this needs long-term thinking and a decisively creative approach, guided by as yet missing policies and regulatory frameworks,” he insists.

At Madrid’s Thyssen Bornemisza Museum, works of art are recreated as culinary experiences. Photo: Shutterstock.comAt Madrid’s Thyssen Bornemisza Museum, works of art are recreated as culinary experiences. Photo:

No to quick fixes

It is not just about getting any catering facility into the cultural space but about expanding the museum experience to become more multi-sensorial, he believes – “and that may include food”.

Again, this is not about “bluntly going for run-of-the-mill commercialisation that is a quick fix and, more often than not, available off the shelf”.

Rather than be “object-centred”, among the many ways museums could become sustainable is the approach of “experience economy thinking”, guided by the visitor’s perspective, according to Debono.

“From the museum public’s point of view, the museum shop, the exhibition spaces and the galleries are one experience. So is the restaurant or the café.”

And, recently, even restrooms have been considered part and parcel of the same museum experience.

In a post-COVID-19 scenario, museums are also looking more into what could be described as “business transformation”, which implies fundamental changes in the way museums are managed and run.

One example is the pay-per-use ticketing system, whereby the public only pays for the time spent in the museum and the benefits obtained from the visit, Debono explains, adding that German museums have already experimented with this pre-COVID.

Health and well-being initiatives – such as medics prescribing visits to museums, some of which also offer meditation sessions – are happening in the US and Europe, says Debono, who fails to see “traces of this thinking in the Maltese museum eco-system”.

While understanding it could sound “radical”, this has been going on at least since the 1990s in an increasing number of museums abroad, particularly those at the forefront of innovation.

But, in Malta, “we still get the odd comment that there is a template for a museum to follow”.

“Templates continue to limit creative approaches that are desperately needed to turn the Maltese museum eco-system into a sustainable, resilient and creative sector.”

The debate around catering facilities in museums and heritage sites is symptomatic of a deeper challenge concerning “outdated stereotypes of what a museum should be or look like and the lack of bespoke museum entrepreneurship that understands the museum public in a holistic manner”.

No need to reinvent wheel

Cafés in museums are no novelty, with catering facilities in these cultural sites having been around since at least 1869, Debono points out, offering as an example the pioneer, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Café Jacquemart-André, in Paris has menus that change according to the exhibition on show while ethnic food and indigenous dishes from the Americas are served at the National Museum of the American Indian, in New York.

In the case of Madrid’s Thyssen Bornemisza Museum, works of art are recreated as culinary experiences and the project has also been published as a book – El Thyssen en el plato.

These are among the many listed by Debono that run catering facilities as an extension of their vision.

Best practices could also be drawn from outside the museum eco-system – from literary and art cafés, he says. But the search for other examples to emulate could also be right on our doorstep.

The recreation of historic food has recently been experimented on by the Notarial Archives Foundation and Heritage Malta but has yet to be structured into a regularly accessible experience, he observes.

“The knowledge is there. It is the full potential that this knowledge holds that remains, as yet, untapped and the missing business transformation models of which there is no trace either.”

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