Of museums and necessary mutations | Sandro Debono

The wide-ranging exhibition ‘Malta. Land of Sea’ represented the island at the BOZAR in Brussels while the EU Presidency was at its helm in 2017. Now that its catalogue gets the rare treat of a second edition, TEODOR RELJIC speaks to the exhibition’s curator and the catalogue’s editor Sandro Debono

Malta. Land of Sea took a sprawling sweep of the island’s visual arts history, while acknowledging its inherent liminality. Photo credits: Martina Cutajar (above), BOZAR (overleaf, top-right)
Malta. Land of Sea took a sprawling sweep of the island’s visual arts history, while acknowledging its inherent liminality. Photo credits: Martina Cutajar (above), BOZAR (overleaf, top-right)

We are of course living in strange times, and the art world is now often called upon to soothe, reassure but also – as is often otherwise the case – to justify its existence once again as the world aggressively moves to distinguish the ‘essential’ from the ‘non-essential’. As someone for whom the museum experience is so central, what do you make of all this?

Museums all over the world are faced with unprecedented difficulties, mostly financial but not just. Whether they remain an essential part of contemporary societies is yet to be seen but the rapidity with which museums all over the world moved to a greater presence on social media does speak for a museum sector that wants to be there and remain essential. It does not mean that a greater online presence will tick all the right boxes.

Indeed,  those museums which stood out were the ones to think simple and not just digital – a good case study of a European museum I can flag is the Polin in Warsaw which chose to go for radio transmission. Another good example comes from the LAM museum in Amsterdam with the project ‘Viewphone’, through which museum curators and educators reached out to their publics via telephone to present artworks from the museum collection. Some also went beyond in support of their communities. What may come across as a radical example is the case of the Birmingham museums which changed one of their museum shops into a food store at the service of their community.

This reaching out will build bonds between museums and their communities that will make these institutions essential and relevant in the medium to long term. I am not surprised with the lobby advocating the early re-opening of art museums. Those behind this lobby, including BOZAR Centre of Fine Arts (Brussels) artistic director Paul Dujardin, make the point that societies need art much more than ever before.

What will make the difference in the medium to long term, as far as relevance is concerned, is a greater awareness by museum staff, particularly noticeable in those areas of the world most hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, of the need to be more empathic towards and with their museum publics. Extensive retraining might be necessary as the new skillsets required for a post-COVID-19 cultural scene might be very different. The need for new skill sets is commonplace over a longer stretch of time, but the rate with which the situation has precipitated and the slow recovery envisaged makes things much more pressing.

Sandro Debono
Sandro Debono

Malta. Land of Sea was the island’s visual arts conduit with the sphere of its take-up of the EU Presidency in 2017. Looking back on it now, with not just the more immediate effects of the pandemic to consider, but also Valletta’s often ‘festive’ performance as European Capital of Culture in 2018, what do you think the exhibition continues to say about Malta’s artistic heritage, and its next evolutionary steps forward?

The exhibition chose to approach the discussion on Maltese identity through the dialectic between land and sea. Rather than going for a well-established chronology, or go by long-standing themes the project sought to consider Malta as an amalgam of land and sea, an extended territory of sedimentary rock and its surrounding sea. I remember touring David Abulafia, a scholar whom I greatly respect and admire, around the exhibition and listening to his positive comments about the innovative and thought provoking nature of the exhibition – he actually wrote it down on my personal copy of the exhibition catalogue (first edition). The constant questioning, critical review, discussion and debate as to who we really are as a community, a nation and as individuals living on an island at the centre of the Mediterranean can be taken forward through the material culture that shapes our history.

Another point of consideration concerns the way we have structured our understanding of Maltese history and identity over time, oftentimes pigeon-boxed in response to colonial ambitions that have shaped and informed us over decades and centuries. This table of elements is not cast in stone. Indeed, this exhibition set out to highlight uniqueness in the very many ways our history connects and relates to the ‘other’. It is a history that our colonial past has taught us to approach by exclusion and preference. It can be approached by inclusion through a narrative woven from our very own perspective and point of view. I am not saying this has not been happening, but I believe exhibitions can visualise these in varied ways, create discussion and debate but also raise questions and get publics to think.   

What were some of the challenges in putting together an exhibition that collates the visual arts history of Malta? How did you side-step the risk of just ending up being a ‘greatest hits’ grab-bag of the most significant elements that characterise the trajectory of Maltese art?

The positive thing about this project, and what I consider to be one of the strengths that contributed to its success, was the commitment, expertise and know-how of the team entrusted to deliver on this project that I had the pleasure and privilege to lead and work with. Then Architecture Project’s Tom Van Malderen and Martina Cutajar led the design and layout of the exhibition project informed by the bespoke concept purposely developed for this exhibition project. Artists Pierre Portelli and Austin Camilleri, also commissioned works in dialogue with the careful selection of works of art, heritage objects and material culture, were also part of the discussion at a second stage as they chose where and at what point to react and engage with the exhibition narrative.

Logistics were covered by Heritage Malta’s pertinent departments, specifically commissioned for this task by the Working Group for the Artistic Programme of the Presidency. Revisiting Maltese identity from scratch without any preconceived ideas to consider a priori, working with two top class artists and a meaningful multidisciplinary approach are some of the ingredients that I can gladly highlight. The curatorial choice was also extended to include a broader range of stakeholders with artefacts on display chosen from national museums, house museums and private collections. This was complemented by a choice of artefacts coming from international museums and private collections some of which had rarely been showcased. The broader stakeholder involvement and the different take on the subject could make the concept work in visual terms, and present the dialogues as intended.

How important was the publication of the catalogue to the overall impact and scope of the exhibition itself, and what do you make of the fact that a second edition was printed?

That a second edition was in the offing most likely came across in the months following the exhibition inauguration.  Midsea Books had flagged this potential early in the day and I was pleased and honoured to willingly oblige and take the project forward. The scope and purpose of the first edition was intended to present the research leading or in reaction to the exhibition concept itself. The catalogue served its purpose well and kept doing so beyond the exhibition timeframe in such a way as to sell out rather fast. This is when the second edition in abridged format comes into the picture.

A second edition of an exhibition catalogue is quite rare in local and international circumstances but the essays and research featured in the first edition, and the need to document the project appropriately, made the second edition a desired ambition. I am most grateful to the contributors of the first edition who gladly accepted to have their contribution included in the second. It is also an honour to have Prof David Abulafia’s foreword and HE President George Vella preface to this second edition.    

Given your experience of both the local and international museum and visual arts scene, what would you say are some of the most significant and urgent matters that local artists and museum/gallery curators should consider both during and post-COVID?

I think the local reaction across all culture sectors broadly reflects the mainstream reaction across Europe and beyond. The challenges ahead are certainly considerable and there is no off-the-shelf solution waiting to be picked up and implemented. Each country’s arts and creative sector would need to find its own recovery path, although the extent of knowledge-sharing happening at this point in time via social media networks and platforms can certainly help.

What might perhaps be the biggest challenge ahead is the need to rethink our understanding of what the audience is, through meaningful and well thought-out projects bridging physical and virtual experiences with publics moving in between the two at the same time – be they local, international or both. Indeed, an integrated approach informed by audience empathy can turn things around, but the situation can also be the catalyst for innovation and out of the box ideas that can spearhead major change. The research to do so is there and readily available. The next step might be much more within reach than some might think but the envisaged reconstruction would need to think sustainability much more.

What’s next for you?

Following my departure from MUŻA in early 2019 after close to twelve years leading the National Museum of Fine Arts and its major rethink, I am now more active than ever in education both at the University in Malta and other foreign universities (mainly Italian), and on international projects and conferences. I share thoughts, ideas and reflections on the international museum landscape regularly on my blog publication – The Humanist Museum – and the response has been very encouraging. I am still learning the ropes but I do get lots of feedback from almost anywhere, including Asian colleagues willing to translate content to Chinese or acknowledgements of sorts coming from almost anywhere around Europe and beyond. Incidentally, one of my blog posts unexpectedly got flagged by the American Alliance of Museums as further reading. I consider all this to be very encouraging and, indeed, humbling.

This blog publication will inform the content of a webinar I shall be giving as part of the Network of European Museums Organisations webinar series – Museum Lives in Post-Pandemia – happening this coming 6 May. Hopefully, another publication will soon be in the works but am sure we will have time to discuss that when in hand. In the meantime, I plan to keep moving forward with the support and thanks to the healthy exchanges of colleagues and friends in Malta and beyond.

The second edition of the catalogue for Malta. Land of Sea is published by Midsea Books. Sandro Debono will be delivering a webinar on ‘Museum Lives in Post-Pandemia’ on May 6 at 11:00, organised by the Network of European Museums Organisations. For more information log on to https://www.ne-mo.org/training/nemo-webinars.html