The Malta Maritime Museum in Vittoriosa has re-opened its doors after four years for a new exhibition exploring Malta’s identity as an island nation.

In a press conference on Thursday, Heritage Malta announced the opening of An Island at the Crossroads an exhibition being held in the newly restored sections of the museum.

It includes some newly acquired exhibits that were purchased specifically for the museum. 

Built by the British in 1842 on the ruins of a Knight-era arsenal, the building mainly served as a bakery for the Mediterranean Fleet. It was converted into a museum in 1992.

While the museum was closed an intensive restoration of some of the most derelict areas of the building, including the grain silo, the arsenale and the roofs, with the refurbished spaces now being used to house the new exhibition as the second phase of the restoration project is set to continue. 

The museum benefitted from a €2 million investment to complete the first phase of the restoration, half of which was awarded through the EEA Norway Grants. 

These works included the restoration of a vaulted masonry structure, once part of the original building that was torn down by the British, removing the concrete-clad staircase built in the 1970s and a major intervention on the collapsing roods. 

The newly restored arsenale, the oldest known part of the building. Photo: Jessica ArenaThe newly restored arsenale, the oldest known part of the building. Photo: Jessica Arena

The Norway Grant was also integral to setting up a new digitisation unit within the museum, with new state-of-the-art equipment purchased that can capture highly accurate digital representations of the exhibits. 

In the four years the project has been running, the digitisation equipment has allowed for a large part of the museum’s 20,000-strong collection to be digitised and has put Heritage Malta in a position where it is now able to digitize its entire national collection. 

The digitisation technology also manifested in a new hybrid digital exhibition at the museum aimed at capturing some of the country’s intangible heritage. 

The unit’s new recording studios have captured more than 200 hours of memories and oral history from dockyard workers, whose stories now form part of the exhibition on display and can be accessed by visitors through QR codes during their visit to the museum. 

The second phase of the project will see the remaining two-thirds of the museum restored, including the ovens, the halls and the boats. 

Culture Minister Owen Bonnici said the intention is to excavate the original ditch around the building and make the museum fully accessible from both the marina and the piazza areas that it abuts. The museum will be fully reopened to the public once these works are completed, he said.

Senior Curator Liam Gauci explained that part of the challenge for work to continue is because the building is built on top of the water. Its designer William Scamp, didn’t fully trust Maltese stone and made use of a lot of iron to construct the naval bakery.

Additionally, Gauci said that since the building that was once adjacent to the museum in the piazza is no longer there to hold it up, the structure has begun to tilt slightly towards the water. The museum is still actively researching the best way to move forward to strengthen the building. 

A scale model of the Great Siege on display at the museum. Photo: Jessica ArenaA scale model of the Great Siege on display at the museum. Photo: Jessica Arena

“It is a process, but we felt it was important to open the part that is finished to the public so that people can appreciate what is happening and the work we have done to conserve the building,” he said. 

Some of the Museum’s unique and newly acquired exhibits include the letter signing off on the French blockade of Malta penned by Napolean Bonaparte himself. 

Sitting in a section exploring Malta’s more recent maritime history with irregular migration is also an innocuous pink bouncy ball on a clear perspex platform. 

Gauci explained that the ball had been handed to a child who made the crossing from North Africa to Malta, as the vessel had run out of life jackets. 

“The idea behind the whole project has been to give this beautiful museum a new lease on life,” Bonnici said. 

A megalodon tooth displayed at the museum. A popular myth said that these were reportedly the tongues of the venomous snakes rendered impotent after St Paul survived a viper bite and cast it into the fire. Photo: Jessica ArenaA megalodon tooth displayed at the museum. A popular myth said that these were reportedly the tongues of the venomous snakes rendered impotent after St Paul survived a viper bite and cast it into the fire. Photo: Jessica Arena

“Now that the first phase of the project has been finished we wanted to give something back to the public and that’s why we have this extraordinary exhibition going on for the next year, while the second phase of the work resumes.” 

An Island at the Crossroads will be open every day, except on Tuesdays, as from tomorrow, February 9, from 9am to 5pm at the Malta Maritime Museum in Birgu.

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