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Museum of the Order of St John visit to Malta

Hannah Agass, Learning and Access Officer at the Museum of the Order of St John visited Valletta and Mdina in May 2018 with an ICOM UK – HWB Travel Grant.  This is Hannah’s report from her visit.

Hannah Agass outside the Gand Master's Palace, Valletta

Hannah Agass outside the Gand Master’s Palace, Valletta

Having worked at the Museum for five years, there are periods and themes within the Order’s history that I am extremely used to interpreting. The Order’s role as the sovereign power of Malta from 1530 to 1798 is not, however, a period that I was particularly familiar with. As a result, it has not previously been the focus of our learning and public programmes despite the Museum’s large Maltese collections. This year, the Maltese capital, Valletta (founded in 1566 by the Order’s Grand Master, Jean de Valette), is the European Capital of Culture and has provided me with the impetus to improve my knowledge and, devise a programme celebrating this aspect of the Order’s heritage.

Furthermore, given the important but niche nature of the Order’s history, it is particularly important that collaboration is fostered between the institutions who tell its story. The collaboration will help all involved to identify gaps in provision and share best practice in terms of interpreting the Order’s complicated history.  Through the creation of a subject specialist network with a focus on learning and engagement, my intention is that participants will be able to share successful projects and frameworks consequently creating greater capacity for engaging new audiences.

Heritage Malta primary school workshop

Heritage Malta primary school workshop

The opportunity to meet colleagues from Heritage Malta including Vanessa Ciantar, Senior Education Executive, assist with school workshops, discuss current projects, and identify areas for future collaboration has been invaluable. In the short-term, we plan to share resources and plans for related school and family activities. Vanessa has already shared with me the resources for a family workshop using the Grand Master Coins, which I now plan to run this summer using the coins in our collection.

I was also able to visit the Palazzo Falson the former home of Olof Frederick Gollcher who, in 1935, made one of the most significant gifts to the Museum’s collection. Seeing Gollcher’s furniture and paintings in context at the Palazzo was particularly interesting for me as the furniture he donated to the Order is largely intermixed with Victorian furniture within Tudor rooms. Currently, the furniture is not specifically referenced on our guided tours and this is something that I now feel confident enough to address. The Palazzo’s Curators Francesca and Caroline were keen to explore ways in which we can support each other online through social media and collections highlights as well as sharing related resources and promoting each other’s events.

Visiting Malta and submersing myself in the Order’s city has filled me with excitement and enthusiasm for sharing this fascinating part of the organisation’s history. Not only was I able to visit many of the museums and heritage sites associated with the Order thus considerably improving my knowledge, but I was fortunate to meet some extremely enthusiastic and collaborative colleagues at Heritage Malta and the Palazzo Falson. As anticipated, there is huge scope for us to support each other and to share resources, but there is also a lot of appetite to co-develop materials and workshops, which will increase the capacity of all involved to develop and engage new audiences.

My knowledge of this period has increased tremendously, enabling me to better interpret the Museum’s Maltese collections. It was incredible to experience first-hand the immense size of La Sacra Infermeria, the Order of St John’s hospital on the island. Following my visit, I have been inspired to start exploring opportunities to develop a workshop and resources for key stage 3 students studying the history of medicine and explore the evolution of the Order’s hospitals as well as the treatments they provided. I also loved the interpretation at the National War Museum, based in Fort St Elmo especially the interactive map which shows the 1565 Siege of Malta – I have so many new ideas as to how we can use the many maps and engravings in our collection to illustrate this infamous battle both for families, and within the Museum’s displays.

Furthermore, I have a been able to share best practice with colleagues who tell the same story and establish an informal, but extremely supportive, subject specialist network. This will enable us to share resources with each other, therefore saving time and potentially increasing our reach as well as providing a useful sounding board for new projects.

My top tips for other museum professionals undertaking international visits include:

  • Don’t be afraid to get in touch with colleagues at other institutions, they will be just as excited to meet and share ideas as you are.
  • If possible try to get some hands-on experience (particularly important in a visitor experience or learning capacity), or a personal tour as it’s the quickest way to understand the collections, how they’re interpreted/ presented and how they are used.
  • Take plenty of resources to show and share with colleagues and leave room in your luggage to take plenty home.
  • Make sure you follow up your meetings by contacting colleagues as swiftly as possible on your return.

In the short-term, Vanessa Ciantar (Senior Education Executive at Heritage Malta) and I are already starting to share successful resources and workshop frameworks that we have developed for Order of St John related school and family activities. In preparation for the summer holidays, I am adapting one of Vanessa’s family activities, which involved the Maltese Grand Master Coins currently on display in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, to use with our own similar collection of coins. Longer-term, Vanessa and I we would like the opportunity to work together to create a workshop or online resource for use by Heritage Malta and the Order of St John – I’d be particularly interested in devising a maths activity for schools based on Valletta’s defences.

Film depicting the 1565 Seige of Malta

Film depicting the 1565 Seige of Malta

I was also able to spend time at the Palazzo Falson, the former home of Olof Frederick Gollcher who, in 1935, made one of the most significant gifts to the Museum’s collection. The Palazzo’s Curators Francesca and Caroline were keen to explore ways in which we can support each other online through social media and online links between our collections highlights, as well as sharing related resources and promoting each other’s events. We also shared information about our current learning and engagement programmes and Caroline was extremely interested to find out more about our successful ‘Museum Takeaways’, loans boxes which have been created using real and replica objects, activities and interpretation relating to the Order’s 900-year humanitarian legacy.

Submersing myself in the Order’s city and meeting enthusiastic and supportive colleagues, has filled me with excitement and enthusiasm for sharing this fascinating part of the organisation’s history.

“The Museum of the Order of St John’s Maltese collections are extremely significant, and the Order’s relationship with Malta is a particularly dominant theme in the Museum narrative that is under-represented in our learning programme.   The establishment of an informal subject specialist network, and the development of collaborative relationships with related institutions in Malta, will enable a culture of professional information sharing.   This will support and enhance the Museum’s public learning and engagement programmes, and will also enforce enduring links with focussed Maltese cultural institutions.   This has been an extremely positive, rewarding, and valuable exercise, both for Hannah and for the Museum.”

Tom Foakes, Director/Head of Heritage, Museum of the Order of St John

ICOM UK