The Malta Independent 28 January 2023, Saturday
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The Malta Maritime Museum

Malta Independent Wednesday, 15 February 2006, 00:00 Last update: about 10 years ago

The Malta Maritime Museum was officially opened on 24 July, 1992 by the then Education Minister Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, four years after the inception and actual launching of the idea.

An advisory committee was set up in 1988 to assist in the setting up of the Maritime Museum and during these years, several artefacts were collected from various sources. A suitable building, large enough to cater for the large maritime exhibits and preferably with a historic link, was sought.

The choice for Malta’s National Maritime Museum fell on the former Naval Bakery at Vittoriosa, which was built on the site of the former covered galley arsenal of the Order of St John. The choice met the requirements and expectations set out by the committee.

The Naval Bakery

The Naval Bakery supplied the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet stationed in Malta with its daily requirements of bread and biscuits. The bakery was designed by the British architect and engineer, William Scamp, and was built between 1842 and 1845 over the site of the old covered arsenal of the Knights of St John.

The choice to erect the bakery on this site was dictated by the need to have the bakery in the very hub of the Victualling Yard. A then novel innovation in Maltese architecture was the introduction in parts of the building of cast iron columns as supports for subsequent roofing structures and of rolled steel joists instead of timber beams for roofing various floors. The bakery’s steam-operated machinery was first operated on 10 April, 1845.

Working round the clock, the total production of the Naval Bakery amounted to 30,000 pounds of bread and biscuits a day. Twelve ovens were installed in another part of the building between 1847-1848. Above these ovens are passages in which biscuits, known in naval jargon as “hard tack”, were dried by means of the underlying oven heat.

The bakery ceased to function in the 1950s, and was converted into offices and stores and subsequently served as the headquarters of the Admiralty Constabulary. The “bakery”, as it was and still is affectionately known, remained part of the Royal Naval establishments up to the closure of the British base on 31 March, 1979.

Mission of the Museum

Its primary aim is to illustrate Malta’s maritime history from pre-history to the present day and the fascination of the sea within the Mediterranean context, without neglecting the overall global nature of seafaring. These aims are achieved by the constant search, identification and acquisition of artefacts related to the museum’s mission. This task has been aided by the constant donations made to the museum during these past years by the Maltese general public and foreign entities and individuals.

Presently, the museum covers over 2,000 square metres, some 30 per cent of the museum’s total floor area. After the museum’s inauguration in 1992 in a 600 square metre hall, another 800 square metre hall was inaugurated in November 2000 dedicated entirely to the Royal Navy in Malta. The former hall was then dedicated to the Order of St John period.

In October 2003, another section was opened spread over two levels of 250 square metres, each dedicated to marine engineering. Five smaller halls and sections are allocated to ancient shipping, navigation, the merchant navy, Maltese traditional boats and Maltese customs and water police. These are just token displays of the museum’s collections on the subjects, which will eventually be moved to larger halls when rehabilitation and restoration works are completed. Other halls will be dedicated to port facilities, maritime-related sports and to the Armed Forces of Malta maritime squadron.

Ancient shipping

In the ancient shipping section, one finds a small collection of ancient ship models, both merchant vessels such as a Roman grain ship, as well as war vessels such as a Greek trireme. Also exhibited are various watercolours of ancient ships. A small amount of amphora is on display together with a collection of authentic Roman lead stock anchors. The latter collection includes a reconstruction of a Roman anchor, incorporating a Roman lead stock anchor. All these items were retrieved from Maltese territorial waters.

Order of St John

The naval vicissitudes of the Order of St John between 1530-1798 are tied strongly with Malta. This glorious period is represented with a host of various epoch items. A small but important collection of authentic period models, some originally pertaining to the Congregazzione delle Galere and to the Order’s nautical school are on display, featuring the main components of the Order’s fleet.

A late 18th century mezza galera together with a full galley model illustrate the main fighting warships of the Order of St John up to the beginning of the 18th century. Two large 18th century third rate models (sixty-four-seventy-four gun ships), once pertaining to the Order’s nautical school, document the ships-of-the-line squadron, introduced in 1702 by Grand Master Ramon Perellos y Rocaful (1697-1720) to augment the galley squadron.

Several period oil paintings, watercolours and engravings dating between the 16th and the 18th centuries, pictorially illustrate the Order’s sea battles, campaigns and other important events. One of the most delightful paintings is a view of the Valletta marina, pregnant with details of the various maritime aspects of Maltese trade and commerce as seen by a mid-eighteenth century anonymous painter.

A small selection of edged weapons, firearms and cannon, used on the Order’s warships are exhibited. A section in the Order of St John Hall deals with naval artillery treatises and instruments used by the gunners of the Order. One of the gunners’ rulers on display is decorated with the effigy of St Barbara, patron saint of the bumbardiera, the gunners of the Order’s ships.

Navigation and

Communication at Sea

The museum possesses a small but important collection of navigation instruments, with items dating from the seventeenth century. An exceptional complete Nocturnal dated 1574 is the centrepiece of this collection, together with Maltese-made navigation instruments. Also displayed are an 18th century manuscript Portolan and a parchment sea chart together with other 18th and 19th century printed Portolan and sea charts.

Another important section is devoted to communication at sea between the ships themselves and land. Exhibited in this section are various original 18th century manuscript signalling manuals with various small illustrations pertaining to both the galley squadron and to the third rate squadron of the Order of St John.

French Period

The French interlude (1798-1800) is located between the Order of St John period hall and the British period hall. Two large French republican guns, a prisoner of war wooden model of the French second-rater Bucentaur, documents, edged period weapons and a host of water colours, engravings and lithographs including portraits, illustrate these two eventful years. Among the portraits are two period plaques, one a Sevres bisque of Napoleon and the other a Wedgewood jasper of Nelson.

British Period

The British period in Malta (1798-1979) is documented with various paintings, watercolours, engravings, period models, uniforms and a host of various artefacts. The hall is divided into various sections illustrating the role of the Royal Navy in Malta and its significance to Malta and the Maltese.

Naval medical services, the Royal Navy’s backbone, in Malta are best represented by the original architect’s model of Bighi Naval Hospital, datable to 1829.

In the Dockyard section, various tools and original dock models are on display, as are foundry models and period photographs showing the construction of the various naval docks and of the breakwater. A 32-foot naval racing gig, complete with oars, delights water sports enthusiasts. The law at sea is represented by the Vice-Admiralty Court silver Oar Mace and seals and by several published books and documents treating piracy. The evolution of underwater diving is recalled by means of a display of Seaby and Gorman hard-hat diving gear, complete with air pumps, suites, hard hats and communication systems dating to the 1920s.

A small part of the museum’s collection of uniforms is on display. One such uniform is the so called “No. 5”, worn on 1 April, 1979 on board H.M.S. London, when the ship left Malta at the closure of the British base, which also officially brought to an end the Royal Navy’s presence in Malta.

Royal Navy warship portraits and models dating from the late eighteenth century, document the thrilling changes of ship construction and propulsion. A display of over 250 miniature models illustrate the evolution of the Royal Navy warships from an 18th century first-rater (100+ guns) to contemporary nuclear-powered submarines. Several British, Italian and Maltese ship portrait painters documented some of the then most famous ships.

British edged weapons, firearms and guns belonging to various periods are also on display. A midshipman’s knife dating to c.1775 is possibly the oldest weapon on display. Several cutlasses, including some “figure of eight” examples are also on exhibit. A sea service pistol and various guns complete the section. Foremost in the gun collection is a prototype carronade gun dating to the 1760s.


The Maltese Customs played – and still plays – a vital role in Maltese maritime affairs. More than 90 per cent of Malta’s imports and exports to this date are still via the sea. The story of the Malta Customs is told through original artefacts that once pertained to this institution. The official standard weights and measures used by the Maltese Customs are on exhibit, the oldest of which date to the early eighteenth century with the coat-of-arms of Grand Master Vilhena (1722-1736). Those weights and measures, which had to be used in the Maltese islands, had to be calibrated with these official standard weights and measures, all appropriately marked with successive Grand Masters’ marks.

Maltese traditional boats

Maltese traditional boat models, tools and paintings constitute the basis of a small hall dedicated to the colourful Maltese boats. The museum possesses a collection of over 40 full-scale traditional Maltese boats, which presently cannot be displayed due to lack of restored spaces. The models tell the story of each type of Maltese traditional boat, its use and purpose such as the Kajjik, and the Fregatina and the actual evolution of specific types such as the Dghajsa.

Nearly extinct boat types are also on exhibit such as Tal-Latini and the Ferilla – as are the now more important models of extinct boat types, such as the Speronara and the governor’s Gondla. Boat and ship-building tools are exhibited together with a whole set of master moulds for the building of a traditional Maltese fregatina.

Exhibited alongside these models are some ex-voto paintings, which tell the story of the Maltese mariner’s faith and devotion towards God, Our Lady and other saints.

Mercantile marine

Presently, only a token display about the Mercantile Marine features in the museum. The present display focuses mainly on the merchant shipbuilding activity in Malta mainly up to the mid-19th century. Half models of some of the Maltese-built merchant ships are displayed together with several other foreign merchant ship models and a few ship portraits, all with a Maltese connection.

The “Sant’Antonio” block-built model is the most naive model on display at the museum; however the very fact that it was built by its own master merits its display. Although amateurly made, this merchant brig schooner model illustrates a type of merchant ship which has since vanished from our seas.

Among the 19th century and early twentieth century merchant ship portraits on display are those of the Malta-based Gollcher fleet of sail and steam ships, namely the L’Isle Adam and the Gleneagles. The museum possesses what possibly is the largest collection of early 19th century ship portraits by Nicholas Camilleri – an acclaimed Maltese ship portrait painter.

Marine engineering

The marine engineering hall is housed on two levels. At the lower level, the working triple expansion steam engine and auxiliary engines of the 1952-built grab hopper dredger Anadrian are displayed. Other items pertaining to this ship are on display, such as the engine room tools, spare parts, documents, the ship’s model and a reconstruction of the wheelhouse equipped with all the original navigation and control systems. The ship made Maltese history since, in 1954, it started clearing Maltese harbours from wartime debris and other silt accumulated since the late 1930s.

In the upper level, a selection of small inboard engines dating from 1923 and various outboard engines dating from the 1950s are found. The story of the propeller is told through a display of various bronze propellers dating from the mid-19th century. Marine engineers testing equipment and reference books, traditional Maltese boat models as adapted with inboard and outboard engines and various other marine engineering related models are to be found at this level.

Museum facilities

The museum is equipped with a function hall ideal for various activities, ranging from social and cultural evenings to seminars and conferences. Viewing and booking can be done by appointment with the manager, business development at Heritage Malta Head Office in Valletta.

Friends of the Malta Maritime Museum

The “Friends” was set up in 1993 as an independent group of maritime history enthusiasts who help the Malta Maritime Museum in various ways. Some members actually assist in the museum’s photographic archive, the library in general and in specific research projects. Other “friends” help in cleaning or renovating items. From time to time, the Friends donate artefacts to the museum purchased from the Friends’ own funds. Anyone interested in becoming a member can collect a membership form from the museum’s reception. Four annual newsletters are published and distributed among members, and an annual seminar with a Maltese maritime theme is organised annually during the summer months.

More information about the museum and its activities can be found on Heritage Malta’s website, http://

Emmanuel Magro Conti is Senior Curator Maritime and Military History

Article provided by Heritage Malta

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