The Malta Independent 17 December 2018, Monday

The betrayal of the muses

Karsten Xuereb Thursday, 15 November 2018, 09:50 Last update: about 1 month ago

On Saturday 10 November, to great pomp and wonderment, the newly relocated and conceived museum of art, MUŻA, was opened to the public. Although, in spite of all the bombast and publicity, not for the public, as yet. The occasion provided the political class, yet more men in dark suits, and their acolytes, with a comfortable yet ostentatious shrine from which the shrill message of culture for the people could be put forth, in a digitalised version of panem et circenses. After all, the Romans themselves could be very careful with the presentation of their culture, or that appropriated from others, for aesthetic, and political, aims.

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The occasion was a veritable event. An event is described by scholars of cultural and sports manifestations, like Robert Hewison, as having come to say more about their masters, and their agendas, than whatever type of human activity is supposed to be celebrated. This event recalled another occasion that took place not long ago. Some readers may remember the grand opening, yet hallowed in a quasi-spiritual sense, of the St James Centre for Creativity, now Spazju Kreattiv, just across another significant cultural space on Valletta’s map, namely Pjazza Teatru Rjal.

Footage still evokes some of the expectation and amazement of the many people discovering the recreation of Richard England on the cusp of the new millenium. Never has the space seen so many people, from all walks of life, in one go. And that is a pity. An opening should herald a bright future and encourage more and more citizens and tourists to visit and engage with a space as inspiring as the Knights’ cavalier. Criticising the management for not turning the centre into the brightest spark on the cultural map is missing the wood for the trees. Chronic lack of investment, as witnessed by yet another meagre budget allocation for 2019, made all the more hard to bear in light of the millions that are boasted of as being invested in culture by the ministry responsible for this area, accounts for the handbrake that has not been released, together with the necessary financial, commercial, legal and human resources, to stimulate a truly creative environment. It is little wonder that only one out of twenty-five of my current local and international students studying arts management at the Institute of Travel, Tourism & Culture at the University of Malta have heard of the place, and none have been.

In spite of political posturing, the celebration of the homecoming of MUŻA, longed for and spurred on by many in the local as well as international community, has been warmly marked by many artists, activists as well as those who have already become part of the museum’s family through various workshops, educational exchanges and visits. I count myself lucky to have been part of the adjudicating board of the design of the new museum, participated in and led workshops that have contributed to the philosophy and the narrative of this community space, and engaged academically and critically with its development in international fora. My admiration for the curatorial team remains boundless.

In the continuation of their voyage, and what is only the beginning for the new museum itself, it may be useful to travel further back in time to find the necessary auspices in fertile ground. In her beautiful historical fiction Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar has the dying Roman Emperor recall Arrian of Nicomedia’s construction of the Spartan ideal on the basis of three fundamental pillars: strength, justice and the muses. She writes how:

‘Strength was the basis, discipline without which there is no beauty, and firmness without which there is no justice. Justice was the balance of the parts, that whole so harmoniously composed which no excess should be permitted to endanger. Strength and justice together were but one instrument, well tuned, in the hands of the Muses. All forms of dire poverty and brutality were things to forbid as insults to the fair body of mankind, every injustice a false note to avoid in the harmony of the spheres.’

On the occasion of the 26th annual conference of the network of European museum organisations (NEMO), appropriately timed to effectively launch the museum into the international community as well as the local dimension, one hopes to perceive fewer false starts and greater harmony, less instrumental use of culture and a more just approach towards people’s intelligence and their arts.

 

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