The Malta Maritime Museum has reopened its doors to the public for a year-long exhibition about the island’s history as a maritime nation.
And while the newly refurbished building boasts many intriguing and antique artefacts, a more modern and perhaps surprising one stands out from the crowd.
In a clear box mounted on top of a clear pedestal sits an inflated pink plastic bouncy ball, decorated with character from the mobile app game Angry Birds.
This cheap toy, curator Liam Gauci explained to Times of Malta, was what a migrant child was clinging on to for dear life in the Mediterranean Sea, before being rescued by the Armed Forces of Malta.
There were no life jackets, Gauci said, and the bouncy ball was all that boy was left with when he was unceremoniously deposited into a sinking boat by smugglers.
This artefact, donated to the museum by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station Malta, is one of the items Gauci hopes will spark introspection about Malta’s current prospects as an island nation and to confront the realities of what happens in its territorial waters.
We are a repository of stories that can spark feelings in people, pride, joy, shame, compassion- Malta Maritime Museum curator Liam Gauci
“As a museum, we are a repository of stories and it is through those stories that we can spark feelings in people, pride, joy, shame, compassion. I think the bouncy ball really encompasses all those things,” Gauci said.
“Like most modern artefacts that we have, it is a symbol that clearly shows how cold-hearted these smugglers are. Imagine a boy, coming from sub-Saharan Africa, who has probably never seen the sea, and throwing him into it because they know the patrol boats are coming,” he continued.
“I think what makes it poignant is the fact that it’s a toy, one commonly found on our beaches, where our own children can be found having fun playing with it as intended.”
Unfortunately, little is known about the background of the child who had the bouncy ball, only that he was rescued in the Mediterranean and processed in Malta.
“If I knew who or where he was, we would have certainly interviewed him for this exhibit,” Gauci said.
“But I think it’s another aspect to consider, that we don’t know who this person was and that it is rather difficult to acquire artefacts like this one because technically they are part of a crime scene.”
Gauci said that despite controversial and conflicting views on modern migration, the museum felt it was important to highlight it as part of its exploration of Malta’s identity tied to the sea.
“Migration has everything to do with our maritime history, because the sea has shaped us in more ways than one and brought people from all over the world to our shores,” he said.
“Some came on mighty battleships and in prehistory they came on the back of logs. Migration has always occurred in Malta and in Europe. We are not saying this is bad or good. We are saying this is happening and we should talk about it and if we can talk about that, we can talk more about what makes us Maltese.”
The Mediterranean and its people have always been fluid, Gauci says, and it is often reductive to discuss different diaspora and their influence in Malta as an “us over here, and them over there”.
In the process of writing his second book on corsairs in Malta, Gauci recounts how the story of an eight-year-old Maltese boy captured as a slave by corsairs encompasses this fluidity of identity in the region.
The boy, then raised as a Muslim, eventually became a corsair himself and attacked the Maltese. But when he was recaptured later in life and his Maltese heritage was discovered, the man returned to Malta and resumed practising his Catholic faith.
“It’s one of those stories that really shows how fluid we are and how we are always looking out to do what’s best for us,” Gauci says.
“We are an egotistical animal, and we need to ask the right questions to be equipped with the right information. But it also gets us thinking about who we are as a community.”
‘An Island at the Crossroads’ is open every day, except on Tuesdays, from 9am to 5pm at the Malta Maritime Museum in Vittoriosa.