Malta’s “Maritime Museum” is housed in the former Naval Bakery on the quay of Valletta’s urban ward Birgu. Construction of the bakery started in 1842 with the objective to supply the huge British fl eet in the Mediterranean with bread and biscuits. The steam-driven machinery was set in motion for the fi rst time in 1845 and the needed coals and grains were stored in an adjacent 16th century building; victuals had priority over monument conservation. The two multi-purpose machines went full blast in 1848. They washed, dried, sieved and milled the grain, and the bakery’s twelve ovens turned out 30,000 lbs of bakery products – per day.
The architect who designed the bakery let himself be inspired by the façade of Windsor Castle, and a handsome building resulted. The bakery did a good job for over a hundred years. It was only in the 1950s that it was closed down, giving way to offices and the headquarters of the Admiralty Constabulary.
When the British garrison bowed out on 31 March 1979, these last tenants had to go, too. Parts of the building were demolished and, in 1988, the Malta Maritime Museum, largest and best endowed such institution on the island, moved into the ample remaining spaces. About time too, Malta having been at the crossroads of Mediterranean shipping since pre-Christian times.
Mainly during both world wars, large numbers of naval vessels plied the waters round the island, time and again putting into port at Valletta Harbour or being stationed there permanently. There is a lot to show as a consequence. Yet the name “Old Naval Bakery” remains preserved till today and any Maltese being asked about it will instantly know that the Maritime Museum is now housed in the edifice and nothing is baked any more.
Naturally, the focal point of the exhibits is on British naval history. Britain held sway over Malta from the year 1800 on and turned the island into a stronghold which even withstood the German Luftwaffe – in spite of 154 days of constant bombardment from 1941-42. The bakery received a few hits too, but only marginally; some shrapnel are still embedded in its façade.
When the museum took over in 1988, it had to start from scratch. Its administration takes pride in the fact that there wasn’t a single artefact to show in the beginning, but that the inventory grew by leaps and bounds, partly through own initiative and partly through the help of sponsors, and today counts no less than 20,000 exhibits.
The centre of attraction is “the heaviest Roman anchor of all times”, a behemoth of four tonnes of lead, which probably took an army of slaves to hoist. The anchor was long associated with the shipwreck of the Apostle Paul in AD 60 or so, till it turned out that the timing was apparently wrong.
Anchors of Roman ships are nothing special in Malta. There is even an “Anchor Bay” in the island’s northwest, where considerable numbers of them could be retrieved; most were taken to the museum.
The island’s largest collection of heavy-calibre cannon from the era when Albion ruled the seas is no less interesting than “Paul’s anchor”, and so is the steampropelled ship’s engine of 1951 vintage, removed from a local harbour dredge. Other highlights are a Napoleonic figurehead from HMS Hibernia of 110 cannon, and an assembly of over 60 Maltese boats out of several centuries.
Magnificent model ships from olden times will make the hearts of aficionados beat faster. And numerous contemporary paintings adorn the walls of the museum, many showing naval engagements round the island, such as the victorious one against a vastly superior fleet of Turkish wouldbe invaders in 1565. In this manner, the spectator gets an impression in what clumsy craft Malta’s Knights of St John plied the seas of yore, but apparently reached their destinations, nevertheless.
When it comes to its locality, the museum couldn’t have chosen a better place. The quay was previously used by men-of-war to load provisions and stores, and in earlier times the arsenal of the Maltese Knights’ galleys was sited there. In front of the quay, a huge mass of pleasure craft occupy the Vittoriosa Yacht Marina, adjacent to the Grand Harbour, one of the Med’s deepest natural ports upon which Malta’s maritime importance is based