Boxes that tell stories | Francesca Balzan

Teodor Reljic speaks to Francesca Balzan, curator of the Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum, about the venue’s latest exhibition – Snuff Boxes: From Accessories to Objets d’Art

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
26 January 2017, 9:50am
18th century Maltese lady holding an ornate painted snuff box
18th century Maltese lady holding an ornate painted snuff box
Francesca Balzan, curator of the Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum, speaks about the venue’s latest exhibition – Snuff Boxes: From Accessories to Objets d’Art, which showcases an eclectic array of vintage snuff boxes and reveals how they served as more than just containers for the once-popular smokeless tobacco 

What led to snuff boxes being the latest exhibition theme for the Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum?  

The theme was a very inspired choice by our CEO and creative director, Michael Lowell. It was inspired by the significant collection of snuff boxes in Palazzo Falson’s own permanent collection. The holdings of our Museum are in fact always the starting point of any exhibition we put on in the Museum. 

We then borrow in several other artefacts from the national collection, ecclesiastical collections and private museums and many private collections. We have had exhibitions on unusual and perhaps under-appreciated areas of the decorative arts such as whistles, scent bottles, smoking pipes and antique watches. By creating very focused exhibitions which really shine a light on these small, artistically relevant, yet functional objects we are offering unusual exhibitions to the public. Hopefully the interest provoked will not only lead people to discover similar objects in their own collections but will get them to protect and treasure them more.

Table Snuff Box, Gold, Enamel, Possibly France, Mid to late 19th century –  National Museum of Fine Arts, Valletta – Heritage Malta
Table Snuff Box, Gold, Enamel, Possibly France, Mid to late 19th century – National Museum of Fine Arts, Valletta – Heritage Malta
Why do you think snuff boxes continue to exert a fascination among people? Is it just their ‘old-timey’ charm, or is there more to it than that? 

The obvious answer to that is that they are beautiful and everyone is drawn to beauty. In a small space, they provide a relatively flat surface on which decorations can be painted, incised, even mounted. Their function was to hold snuff in a small enough container that could be held in the hand and transported everywhere in the pocket. They were accessories to enhance the costume and to announce to all the refinement of their owner – in other words, a status symbol and a stylish one at that. 

On a subliminal level, I think it is probably the fact that boxes serve two apparently contradictory functions: they simultaneously conceal and reveal. The surface decoration is there for all to see, we find boxes decorated with mythological scenes, portraits, symbols and landscapes. We were so struck by all this decoration condensed into small surfaces, as well as the huge variety in subject matter that we dedicated a section of the exhibition to ‘Boxes that tell stories’. 

On the other hand, we also found boxes that concealed. Naturally when closed – and snuff boxes are specifically designed to close very tightly so that none of the powdered tobacco we call ‘snuff’ can escape – you can’t see inside. And sometimes their insides contain decorated surfaces intended only to be seen by the user of the box… portraits (of lovers, one presumes) at times adorn the inner lid. We even found secret compartments within the lids of snuffboxes, compartments so shallow that only papers could be kept inside. Thus, the snuff box becomes more than a container for snuff, perhaps an accessory for spies or lovers.  We found two such boxes which we included in the exhibition.

What are some of the challenges of gathering all the snuff boxes together. Also, once gathered, what kind of curatorial approach did you choose, and why did you believe this to be the best way forward for the exhibition?

Portrait of Paolo Testaferrata, Baron of Gomerino (1736-60) – Oil on canvas, Maltese school, Late 18th century
Portrait of Paolo Testaferrata, Baron of Gomerino (1736-60) – Oil on canvas, Maltese school, Late 18th century
These boxes are precious. Many of them are made of precious metal so their intrinsic value is high. Many are works of art in their own right so their symbolic value is high. And all of them have historic value. To handle, transport and properly display these objects in a manner that showcased their value is a challenge we face every time we organise these exhibitions. 

We do a lot of the planning on paper well ahead of opening. Months ahead of the exhibition we view several collections and document the artefacts, in this case snuff boxes. A narrative is established and we select the ones we wish to display based on how well they illustrate the narrative. Variety in types, materials and age is very high up on our list of desiderata, in order to show as wide a selection as possible of the theme we have chosen. This way the story we are telling is more universal and is certainly not just Malta-centric. 

Visitors to the exhibition are given visual cues to understand the narrative – they are not being tested for historical knowledge or their understanding of the arts. Instead they are prompted to enjoy beauty, to appreciate the skill of the artisan who wrought these boxes and – who knows, hopefully to leave creatively inspired. It is an approach that seems to work well.

How would you say this exhibition fits into the overall programme and approach for the Museum?

The Museum is very strong on the decorative arts. If you look at our mission statement, a stated ambition of our museum is to serve as a showcase for the decorative arts. One of the ways of doing so is to keep generating exhibitions, such as the present one, that focuses on little-studied – perhaps even little-understood – areas of the decorative arts and presenting them to the public in an attractive, accessible way. 

The exhibitions we put on are accompanied by a calendar of activities to enhance the interpretation of the exhibition – in other words, to bring it alive! We’ve had a series of gallery talks (and more to come!), children’s workshops, a public lecture by a visiting lecturer from the Victoria & Albert Museum who has specialised on gold boxes, collaboration with sixth form students to create their own boxes inspired by these historic ones, and even a literary salon is being planned as we speak.

What’s next for the Museum?

Snuff box with scene of Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples, Gold, Enamel, probably Italy, 19th century
Snuff box with scene of Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples, Gold, Enamel, probably Italy, 19th century
Plenty! Right now, we are finalizing our 2017 programme but it is never quite set in stone. Too many opportunities occur throughout the year that really deserve a platform so our initial list of lectures and events is inevitably doubled by the time December comes around. In May 2017, we will be celebrating the 10th year anniversary of the Museum under Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti’s management, after an intensive restoration exercise that saw the house turned into a state-of-the-art museum. Ten years have shot by and we need to gear up for new challenges, new audiences and new opportunities to infect everyone with the love of art and the absolute need to preserve it for future generations.

The exhibition will remain on display at Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum until February 26. Opening hours are Tuesday to Sunday, 10:00 – 16:30. Entrance to the exhibition is free of charge. Visit www.palazzofalson.com to view upcoming events, including a gallery talk to be held in February. Cover photo: Woman reading a love letter, Oil on canvas, Anonymous, Late 18th c., 96 x 72, Casa Rocca Piccola Trust Collection

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...