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Interview with Wilbert Tabone, MUZA, Malta

ICOM UK member Luigi Galimberti interviews Wilbert Tabone about the MUŻA, Malta.

Wilbert Tabone, Researcher and Artificial Intelligence Advisor. Photo: Ed Muscat Azzopardi

Wilbert Tabone, Researcher and Artificial Intelligence Advisor. Photo: Ed Muscat Azzopardi

Wilbert Tabone is a researcher in the areas of Artificial Intelligence, Human-Computer Interaction and the application of technology for digital cultural heritage. Wilbert is involved in the cultural, technology and education sectors and is also an activist for a number of Maltese and international NGOs, including the Commonwealth Youth Council. He is currently spearheading Creative Computing development at Heritage Malta, the National Agency for Museums, Conservation and Cultural Heritage and forms part of Malta.AI which is the Malta National Task Force on Artificial Intelligence, tasked with formulating Malta’s national strategy on AI.

Luigi Galimberti is a Board Member of Res Artis, the world’s largest membership-based network of artist residencies. He was previously Collection Care Research Manager at Tate, London.


Luigi: How was MUŻA born?

Wilbert: ‘MUŻA’, the chosen name for Malta’s new National Community Art Museum reflects history, society and identity. The historical element stems from the fact that MUŻA is an acronym for ‘MUŻew nazzjonali tal-Arti’, which was the Maltese name for the now defunct predecessor – The National Museum of Fine Arts, which was established back in the 1920s. The name also refers to the nine muses from Greek mythology, who are thought to inspire creativity. Lastly, it is the Maltese word for inspiration!

The collection. Photo: Fritz Grimm

The collection. Photo: Fritz Grimm

A point of departure was the collection that was on display at the National Museum of Fine Arts, which featured a traditional division by schools with a predominant emphasis on Italian art from the 17th century. It was felt that the collection had outgrown the old site hosting the museum and there was no room to add any interpretation devices such as audio-visuals. There was also the need to include a larger space for the library, art workspace and storage facility.

The building which was earmarked for the new museum is the Auberge d’Italie, a historic building which served countless roles during its tenure – from being the residence of the Italian Langue of the Knights of Malta to functioning as a court, post office and later a Ministry and Government office. Over three times the size of the old site, the building offered a clean canvas to work with and the ideal space to create a different narrative direction.

The curatorial team organised a number of focus groups and peer reviews as a requirements gathering exercise with diverse groups of people, going beyond art history and museology. In a sense, it was a bottom-up approach. This process spearheaded the transformation of a traditional museum institution into a community resource; a new museum institution which rather than being regarded as sacred space would function as cultural space, with the prime focus being to inspire.


Luigi: How is MUŻA different from other museums? Can you tell us about the work that you have done to shape the museum’s user experience?

The courtyard. Photo: Fritz Grimm

The courtyard. Photo: Fritz Grimm

Wilbert: In a local context, I would say that MUŻA is different as it experiments with different kinds of curation models. Artworks are not grouped according to their periods but rather according to four major narratives: The Artist, Mediterranean, Valletta and Empire. Moreover, the curators experimented with displays utilising glass easels and other models which do not showcase paintings in the traditional sense of having them affixed to the four walls of a hall. Another element is the use of audio-visuals which invite visitors, especially children to create artworks from the perspective of the artist. For instance, we installed a number of screens showcasing the creative process behind different media. Visitors will be invited to watch and explore how bronze statues are made from clay to cast, or how the stone etching or the oil painting process tends to be.

Another interesting element is the one-weave concept, where the restaurant and the MUŻA shop serves as an extension of the Galleries. Hence, there exists a triangulation process where what you eat reflects what you experience in the galleries and purchase from the store and vice versa. Most products in the store were created by artists through inspiring themselves from the MUŻA vision rather than just emulating works hung on the wall. Most of these products were created using green and recycled materials to reflect the green ethos at MUŻA since it is housed in the first completely green-powered building in Malta.

Part of my role was in coordinating the creation of this triangular process with the relative stakeholders from the catering industry, curatorial and artists. During this time I was responsible for advising the contracted audio-visual designers on improving the user experience (UX). This led to several changes, which were reported to increase user satisfaction during user testing (see here a UX case study). Although I am no longer based exclusively at MUŻA, I am still engaged and committed to introducing novel technological elements to the museum in the coming months and years so that the next generations can enjoy our national cultural heritage through contemporary eyes – both human and machine.


Luigi: What is Naqsam il-MUŻA and how does it fit in the development of the museum?

Naqsam il-MUŻA. Photo: NIM Team

Naqsam il-MUŻA. Photo: NIM Team

Wilbert: Naqsam il-MUŻA (NIM) was an activity aimed at getting the community directly involved in the project through community curation. People from all backgrounds and diverse communities were invited to select art pieces from the national collection and share their thoughts with the rest of the community. Through their interactions with paintings or artefacts, these diverse groups and individuals responded to the environment and realities of the Maltese islands in a social setting which allows communities to exchange ideas and experiences. Following the individual selection of artefacts, participants met as part of a focus group, which encouraged debates ranging from the personal to the political. This process offered an often surprising and unexpected reaction to established ideas.

NIM democratised the collection to the general public. Various sections of the community still felt that the appreciation of art was unreachable and an unattainable goal, reserved only for the ‘highly-educated’ section of society. However, through this project, these groups had the opportunity to interact with the national collection for the first time and make their own contribution. We have observed that this instilled a renewed interest for cultural heritage across a number of demographics.

Naqsam il-MUŻA. Photo: Inigo Taylor

Naqsam il-MUŻA. Photo: Inigo Taylor

Following the exercise, panels containing the chosen painting or artefact together with the participant’s comments were affixed in-situ at the chosen community. This served the purpose of bringing the collection outside of the museum and into the people’s home.


Luigi: Which role can AI and related technologies play to shape the museums of the future?

Wilbert: Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been applied to various areas of cultural heritage and facilitated the solution to a number of problems. Thanks to AI we have seen the linkage of museum narratives with online data sources and third-party museum artefacts. This had led to better interpretation and storytelling capabilities. There has also been the creation of semantic digital archives that provide user-friendly, effective and efficient search and retrieval capabilities. We are also looking at the introduction of natural user interfaces, which operate in an augmented reality environment and autonomous mobile robots which could monitor archaeological sites faster, safer and cheaper.

I have personally tried to utilise Malta’s national collection in my projects. One such project utilised computer vision (the study of enabling machines to interpret and analyse images) methodologies to link portraits according to similar facial characteristics. I wanted to link it up to our national art museum, which at the time was still the Fine Arts Museum (precursor to MUŻA) and hence included works by Mattia Preti (1613-1699) and Francesco Zahra (1710-1773). With this technology, portraits housed in different museums or galleries and created by the same or different artists may be linked through a common model sitting or inspiration. I then recommended in my paper, the idea of visitors taking selfies upon entering a museum or gallery and discovering which portrait resembles their own face. Today we find this in Google Arts and Culture.

A year later I also experimented with a head-mounted Augmented Reality (AR) experience, which provides bite-sized information about the artist and the work when you look at it. Research suggests that museum visitors recall their experience and learn more when they use such technology compared to audio guides or traditional wall-mounted text panels.

As I wrote in a recent article, technology has shifted the landscape in the area of cultural heritage. Today, cultural artefacts from across the world are accessible to researchers and enthusiasts at the click of a button; museums can be accessed virtually through mobile devices and carried in one’s pocket. Inaccessible cultural heritage locations can now be easily explored through the use of virtual reality. Artificial Intelligence is paving the way to an exciting future, where breakthroughs in cultural heritage research would be possible through new tools and techniques, which can handle the massive data that have been generated. As technological advancement is fully embraced by cultural heritage researchers, a truly exciting future awaits.