Valletta: more than just a museum city

A new Valletta 2018 Foundation initiative, Naqsam il-MUZA, places the capital city’s residents at its centre. Could projects of this kind be the solution to the Foundation’s ongoing problems with community outreach, and will this lead to a more sensitive appraisal of the risk that ‘Capital of Culture’ could mean gentrification by stealth, TEODOR RELJIC asks?

‘View of the Three Cities from Valletta’ (late 18th–early 19th Century) by Louis Ducros – Antonella Grech’s selection for Naqsam il-MUZA
‘View of the Three Cities from Valletta’ (late 18th–early 19th Century) by Louis Ducros – Antonella Grech’s selection for Naqsam il-MUZA

Community outreach and legacy remain the key challenges for the Valletta 2018 Foundation as it ramps up towards its crucial deadline – or is it a starting point? – a mere two years down the line. This may not be a scientific statement, but I’m confident that it holds true for two simple reasons. 

‘Legacy’ is a term trotted out, often ad nauseam, in nearly every V18 press conference, and it’s something of an open secret that winning the hearts and minds of those who are not certified culture-vultures remains something of a blind spot for the Foundation. Recent internal shake-ups, as well as academic soul-searching exercises – such as an upcoming conference on ‘Cities as Community Spaces’ – betray a nervousness about cracking this particular nut. 

But the recently inaugurated ‘Naqsam il-MUZA’ project may just be a step in the right direction, if initial reactions are to be believed. The ‘MUZA’ in the title refers to the new site of the National Museum of Fine Arts, which will migrate from South Street to Merchants Street under the auspices of Valletta 2018. 

But the MUZA project is also geared towards understanding and assessing how best to ensure that the move takes full advantage of this upgrade to the Museum. 

As the name suggests, ‘Naqsam il-MUZA’ is an active attempt to ‘share’ the contents of the museum – the pun of ‘muza’ as ‘inspiration’ is not lost either – and in fact, the initiative got together 10 Valletta residents to select an artifact or work from the Museum and to say something about it. Reproductions of the pieces – with the reactions of those who selected them – are now placed in strategic parts of Valletta. 

Speaking to MaltaToday, Antonella Grech, a teacher who participated in the project, strongly believed that it succeeds as a community outreach exercise. Having selected the painting ‘View of the Three Cities from Valletta’ (late 18th –early 19th Century) by Louis Ducros as her favourite piece, Grech described the part of Valletta depicted in the painting as “a distinctive icon” with a special resonance for her, since she is from the harbour area. 

Putting the urgency of the Naqsam il-MUZA project into focus, Grech confessed to not being all that aware about MUZA and Valletta 2018 before she was called to participate, “as in fact I think most people aren’t – they need to promote it a bit more I think”.

She quickly added that however, her involvement with ‘Naqsam il-MUZA’ showed that this could change quite quickly if the right techniques are applied. Claiming that she was “honoured” to be selected as a participant, Grech described the excitement of her friends seeing her picture on the papers and online media in conjunction with the project. 

“They immediately started asking me why I was in the paper, what this was all about – they wanted to know all about it. I think this helps in getting the message out there.” 

Asked about the wider implications of an initiative like Valletta 2018 – with its plans to turn Valletta into a more concentrated ‘cultural hub’ and upgrade the city’s ‘market value’ in every sense – Grech was glad that certain basic improvements are taking place – “the streets are cleaner, the city looks nicer overall and some of the older houses that were falling apart are being bought up” – but she’s equally apprehensive about these signs of apparent ‘progress’ as desirability to affluent foreigners also means that the city is getting more expensive to live in. 

Another participant, Lesann Caldwell, a Communications Facilitator who moved to Valletta from Paris four years ago, also expressed concern about Valletta losing some of its intrinsic appeal as it’s being polished up for 2018. 

In a nod to Valletta 2018 chairman Jason Micallef’s misguided nightlife spot comparison back in January 2014, Caldwell – who chose Edward Lear’s ‘St Julian’s Bay’ (1865) as her Naqsam il-MUZA selection – Caldwell said, “I don’t know what the latest is on Strait Street becoming the ‘new Paceville’, but for me the essential qualities of Valletta are not suited to the kinds of people who are looking for late night excitement and all that it brings with it – I can’t understand anyone wanting to transform it into something you can find elsewhere.”


The spectre of gentrification’ 

In fact, the threat of total gentrification is what’s at the core of Grech and Caldwell’s concerns; a concern also shared by Valletta Mayor Alexiei Dingli, who welcomed the boosting of Valletta’s cultural scene – even saying that the city’s “true vocation” is to serve as a brimming ‘creative hub’ – while hoping that this doesn’t alter the way of life of the Valletta residents too drastically. 

“We have to be wary of the spectre of gentrification which is pushed by these initiatives. We have to ensure that initiatives are in place in order to ensure that the residents of Valletta are saved from extinction. We have to guarantee that young couples can start a family within the city walls. It won’t be easy but we have to move in this direction for the benefit of the city,” Dingli said, adding that while such cultural initiatives are an obvious attraction for visitors, “visitors are always visitors, they use the city and then go back home. That’s why it’s the residents we have to protect – we don’t want a museum city but one bubbling with life.”  

On this note, Dingli describes Naqsam il-MUZA as an unprecedented example of “outreach exercises in the cultural sphere”. 

“The fact that a local grocery shop started discussing a painting with me, which was placed close to his shop, shows that Naqsam il-Muza is definitely a step in the right direction. But I think that we and all the other cultural entities in Valletta need to do much more. It’s a pity that we have the Mediterranean Conference Centre, the Manoel Theatre, the MITP, City Theatre, the Pjazza Teatru Rjal, St James Cavalier and museums in Valletta, yet they rarely engage with the community.”

Close to home

Michael Azzopardi, young and ambitious co-founder of remote, design-based startups Sebazzo and Heyday, cut his teeth in London before deciding to return to Malta and make Valletta his home base. As such, he may very well be the prototype of the kind of up-and-coming creatives that a V18-boosted Valletta seeks to attract. He tells us why he decided to return to the homeland during this crucial time

“For me it boils down to its proximity to things and the comfortable size. I use buses to get about the rest of the island, they are fairly reliable and are still an inexpensive mode of transport (if you can get your hands on a Tallinja card, that is). If you enjoy the city nightlife, you’ll get to walk to all your favourite hangouts and cultural events, which are plenty, by the way. Spazju Kreattiv for instance, is one of the best things to have happened in the city in recent years, creatively-speaking.

“And I always wanted to live in Valletta. It’s a gorgeous city with an impressive legacy underpinned by diversity. Once again it finds itself in an understated but very important cultural turning point, much of it happening organically through the music and art scene, foreign investment and the property market. It faces all the challenges of bigger cities too – gentrification, soaring property prices… this is arguably positive. The city has a future. I enjoy living in the midst of all the change, but it’s the stillness I relish, too – the serenity of the Grand Harbour and streets at night are unique and wonderful. This accentuates one of our key weaknesses as a country: urban planning and change management. Will we retain this balance? Sadly, it doesn’t self-regulate.

“Then there’s also Valletta 2018, whose biggest challenge is its ambitious agenda, which stands in its own way because of a combination of hype (unavoidable) and constant scrutiny from a group who are by nature anti-establishment. Artists operate in fraternities and V18 is trying to, and rightly so, appeal to all of them and the masses at the same time. That is much easier said than done.”