Discovering MUŻA: Malta and Gozo’s Cultural Gems for Arts and History Enthusiasts

Written by Albert Fenech
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“Discovering MUŻA: Malta and Gozo’s Cultural Gems for Arts and History Enthusiasts”

For contemporary arts lovers and those appreciating history and culture, MUŻA – surely a visit magnet

Malta’s capital city Valletta was alive and kicking from 1570 onwards, having been built after the Great Siege Victory over the fleet and forces of the Ottoman Empire in 1565. It was built on a parallel grid system of horizontal and vertical roads (later to be followed by cities like New York and Melbourne) and in baroque style with an emphasis on rigorous town-planning rules.

The highlights of Valletta’s buildings have always been the splendid palaces built for the Knights to serve as accommodation and living quarters, each to their different “langues” (i.e. origins and languages) because although the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem had a common cause, its members came from a spread of Europe’s royal houses and therefore despite the brotherly and comradely aims (European Union style!), they simply could not live together because of different languages, different foods, different cultures etc.

The Auberge d’Italie, Malta’s National Museum of Contemporary Arts

Discovering MUŻA

Valletta has three main inwardly thoroughfares, the main central one being Strade Reale (Royal Street), later changed to Kingsway (by the British) and now Republic Street. It is flanked on each side by Old Bakery Street and Merchants Street, a street whose thrift and commerce speaks for itself in name.

The different “langue” palaces were known as Auberges and bore their national names such as the Auberge de Castille, Auberge d’Aragon, Auberge d’Italie, Auberge de Provence, Auberge de Baviere etc, all now the property of the Government and used as functional offices, Castille being the Office of the Prime Minister.

“Les Gavroches” a sculpture by the renowned Maltese sculptor ANTONIO SCIORTINO, the original can be seen in the Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta and has now gained international fame for the Quality of Life.

The Auberge d’Italie in Merchants Street served for many years as the main central Post Office and later as Government offices but is now designated as an international niche to contemporary arts and was inaugurated as MUŻA which is the Maltese word for MUSE and therefore tour, view, think, imagine and dream. This is Malta’s newest National Museum of Contemporary Arts.

MUŻA officially opened to the public in early December, 2018 but had already been a hit with visiting preview critics. The London newspaper ‘The Guardian’ pronounced it as one of the 13 new European museums that must be visited. ‘The Architecture Digest’ said it is one of 15 museums of significant value that have opened that year.

Now no longer open to traffic, Merchants Street is a busy thoroughfare normally thronging with pedestrians. Entering between the portals of the historic and baroque Auberge d’Italie transfers one into a completely different world – that of a world of calm serenity and contemplation.

An impressive entrance of different portraits

Entering MUZA

The entrance is devoted to portraits of renowned artists towards the end of the 19th Century, including a number of self-portraits.

This opening leads to two halls that are dedicated to great artists. One contains the works of Victor Pasmore, a British artist renowned for his abstract works and who lived in Malta, and the other contains the priceless works of Maltese sculptor Antonio Sciortino, including his model of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that was bound for London. As a result of the many drawings that Sciortino did for this monument, MUŻA has a virtual video as to what this grand monument would have looked like.

Exhibited there is also the original model of ‘Les Gavroches’ as well as various other Sciortino sculptures that he first did in plaster and then produced the bronze version. The information about the exhibits is basic, the scope being not to inundate visitors with too much detail. Short videos have also been produced to enable the public to appreciate the work process carried out on certain works.

On the upper floor there is space dedicated to the teaching of art to enable the visitor to experience the feeling of entering an arts class. There is a model in the centre surrounded by easels and sketches of the model from different angles.

Curator Bernadine Scicluna (above) at the inauguration said the class had to reflect certain standards, such as the curriculum that was used in the school of arts that was established at the beginning of the 19th Century.

At the time such a school was an innovation because before that, artists had their own workshop, and new aspiring artists would be taken in as apprentices or assistants and receive their instructions under the direction of an established artist.

For many years the first ground that visitors trod when they arrived in Malta, that is, the Grand Harbour area and Valletta, is reflected in a lot of artistic works. Naturally, there are sections dedicated to the Mediterranean and the era of the British Empire.

As the national art collection held by Heritage Malta is vast, the museum’s exhibits are changed regularly to enable the public to view as extensive a spread of arts heritage as possible.

In all the investment in this new National Museum of Contemporary Arts reached €10 million with extensive restoration works carried out by Heritage Malta on the ancient building.

At any one time 20,000 different exhibits are featured.

HOWEVER, if you think that MUŻA is the only history and arts museum that Malta and Gozo have, you are far, far and far from the actual. The two islands are so replete with history, arts and culture that the two islands abound with museums and exhibits and I am listing a few here – mainly in Valletta but also elsewhere.

Exhibits changed regularly

BeSeeingYou In: Malta and Gozo – a panorama of island world history

Good To Know: Highly available and not expensive to visit, many of them free or a nominal fee

WOW! Factor: Informative, wondrous and where we culturally come from

TIP:  Visitors take care and be SELECTIVE because if you are a history lover you may spend your WHOLE holiday touring indoors!

Author Bio: Albert Fenech

__________________                       __________________

MALTESE SAYING

 “Loosen your hair and prepare soothing oil”

Be prepared for the anguish and anxiety that is on the way.

_________________               _______________

Albert Fenech
Born in 1946, Albert Fenech’s family took up UK residence in 1954 where he spent his boyhood and youth before temporarily returning to Malta between 1957 and 1959 and then coming back to Malta permanently in 1965. He spent eight years as a full-time journalist with “The Times of Malta” before taking up a career in HR Management and Administration with a leading construction company building the Benghazi Hospital in Libya, later with Malta Insurance Brokers, Malta’s leading insurance Broker and finally STMicroelectronics Malta, employing 3,000 employees and Malta’s leading industrial manufacturer. Throughout he actively pursued freelance journalism and broadcasting for various media outlets covering social issues, current affairs, sports and travel. He was Publications Editor for the Malta Football Association for 25 years and has written for a number of publications both in Malta and overseas, as well as publishing two e-books.

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