The Malta Independent 25 September 2022, Sunday
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Marie Benoit's Diary: Journeys from a Mediterranean Island

Marie Benoît Sunday, 21 March 2021, 09:00 Last update: about 3 years ago

DR SANDRO DEBONO is at present Consultant of Culture at the Office of the President of Malta. He is also associate lecturer at the Department of Arts, Open Communities and Adult Education, University of Malta, this beyond his consultancy work, and other local duties and commitments. Here he opts to speak about the experience of living through radical change.

Sandro Debono
Sandro Debono

"The past year has been nothing short of a roller coaster. A journey of paradoxes, too. Less travel but more interconnected, more isolated but much more engaged in conversations. I choose to share those experiences informed by passion and expertise, those being museum and culture studies.

It's been a year or so since my last travels abroad. My last trip was to Catania (Sicily) for a conference on museum repositories. Conversations during coffee breaks revolved around the COVID-19 pandemic. Back then it felt as if the virus was closing in on Sicily almost by the hour as news of new cases popping up here and there kept coming in. To make matters worse, Italian airports had called a strike on the same day as my return flight only to be called off at the 11th hour. Once at the airport, all airlines had cancelled their flights except for one. That was my flight back home. I do miss travelling - very much.

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A week later the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Malta. The rest is history. Work could be much more remote. Nothing new for me after hav-ing spent years working in between a makeshift office and a container functioning as a site office. This was somewhat different, however. Distance began to matter much less as conversations with colleagues at the centre of the island, in Berlin or elsewhere could happen from the same place. That came with a learning curve. Location certainly matters much less now. But this has also tested my family's patience, having to cope with endless lectures by just listening to me rather than to my students' response. Indeed, there is a downside to headphones but then, all of us at home were slowly but surely coming to terms with the new reality of online learning - my daughter and son reading for their Masters, and my wife joining them in due course.

Preparing for the pre-conference international webinar events MUŻE.X – Shaping Museum Futures at Spazju Kreattiv. October 2020


I really wanted to know, learn and understand what was going on. I remember writing my monthly blogpost for my medium.com publication and looking up #coronavirus or anything else indicative of the pan-demic. There was nothing to go by. Much more was to follow at short notice. There was also this latent sense of dejà vu within me that kept me curious all along, having in the past experienced circumstances where funds would not be automatically available besides being, oftentimes, left to your own devices to figure things out. That is what museums and culture are going through at present. Resilience is learnt through experience.

Looking back, I do feel humbled to note so many of my contributions flagged in very many conver-sations, blogs and published material - including Italian art journal Finestre sull'Arte and Museumnext platform. At one point, a dear friend and colleague of mine got back irked by someone de-scribing me as Italian in an opinion piece written for International Arts Management Network. There was not much I could do about it although certainly not correct. It did make me think, nonetheless. What really matters, now more than ever before, is what you say more than from where you come. In the meantime, the second edition of the exhibition catalogue for Malta - Land of Sea was published in March, a few days before COVID-19 got to Malta. 

Colleagues needed help - and I did my very best to stay in touch not just with curator colleagues and friends, particularly those in the private and non-governmental sector. Most of the time it was very much about virtual calls. I do miss the human touch of most of my conversations, including my ever increasing cache of evening lectures. Will we ever succeed in blending online and in-person experiences to complement each other? There is a window of op-portunity in being multiplatform. Blending online with in-presence is becoming the norm as we pivot from one to the other as fresh lockdowns or restrictions come our way.

General shot of ‘Malta Land of Sea’ - The exhibition celebrating the Maltese Presidency of the EU in 2017 held at BOZAR Centre of Fine Arts in Brussels, curated and spearheaded by Dr Debono


Conversations with people living across the globe have now become commonplace. I have seen it happen on the everincreasing number of online platforms where conversations involve colleagues living in such distant places as Alaska and Aarhus. Until recently, the only common denominator between the two was that they both begin with an A. There is much more that they share today, also thanks to online communities that are fast becoming commonplace. These are the spaces contributing to the interdependent world we are now living in. 

Those same conversations were spearheaded locally too thanks to a series of six pre-conference webinar events connecting museum professionals from around the world discussing the future of museums. I'm grateful to colleagues at the University of Malta for seeing value in my work. The conference on the future of museums earmarked for November 2020 shall now be happening in October 2021. In the space of just a few months, the very idea of a conference has changed dramatically.

Online conferences do continue to happen during pandemic times. I have had the honour of speaking at quite a few. The latest at the Anchorage Museum in Alaska. Most of the rest were in Italy or European platforms but Tbilisi (Georgia) also came up.

If I had to look back over the past twelve months I would certainly consider the need to unlearn, rethink and reinvent as my main take-away. We know the meaning of the word resilience. Most of us do, but that also comes with the need to keep an eye on the possibilities ahead as we continue to move through uncharted waters to hopefully bring us to the present future.


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