TOOLS, TRADES & TRADITIONS is a unique museum in Malta. It presents a single private collection of objects and tools related to an array of trades. In the current display the prime role has be given to the artefact, both as a tool matching specific requirements but also as a collectable in its own right, exhibiting aesthetic and historic qualities.
Joseph Zammit Tabona started his collection in the early 1970s when his wife Susan inherited a few items from her step-father, the late Dr. Thomas Agius Ferrante. A consultant paediatrician, he had over the years, received several tools as presents, from the farming families he was visiting. This formed the basis of the collection and the start of a lifetime obsession.
During the following two decades the collection grew at the rhythm of the weekly visits to the Sunday market in Valletta, but also to local antique shops where old tools could still be found. The collection was regularly expanded, almost obsessively, with many items that were unusual and Maltese. Each item has a story, a connection with the collector and in most cases with Malta.
However, what prompted the idea of creating a museum, was the acquisition, some years back, of Pawlu Tanti’s collection, which almost doubled the initial number of items. Fascinated with the artistry, ingenuity and skill that were applied to make an instrument produced to perform sometimes a very humble task, Pawlu Tanti was very interested in old tools.
Only a portion of the collection is being presented here. Many artefacts were used and incorporated in the design for the refurbishment of The Xara Palace - Relais & Chateaux, and also in the adjacent Trattoria AD 1530, both also located in Mdina. Most of the furniture within the hotel consists of very fine antiques specifically selected and purchased for their current use, whilst the walls of the Trattoria are adorned with an impressive tools collection.
The museum is designed around five main sections that were derived from the study of the existing collection. Respect towards the taxonomy already established in the collection was paramount. Centred on the objects, the museum valorises the items whilst maintaining the unity of the collectors’ approach. It is in the same spirit that some of the original notes and attributions are being presented along the tools.
Each collection has its own qualities, logic, shortcomings that have been curated into a contemporary assemblage which highlights the creative diversity and constant innovation that is hidden behind each of these objects. “The business of the experienced workman is not to demand the best possible materials, but rather to make sensible and appropriate use of those available” said Alberti. We wish this place offers a window on past tools and trades, a place where to learn and recall memories, but also a place for intimate and silent discoveries.
Precision & Ornament
The tools exhibited here belong to finer trades and activities, some of which are by now lost arts. In the accumulation displayed the desire was to explore the infinite variations that make the tools families. The ċaqni or wood planes (to use a generic terminology) are fascinating. Each one of them has a specific purpose, a different type of moulding or rebate, or a distinct role in the carpentry process. The method is also highlighted in the selection of tools for gilding, with the various stages of the technique presented.
If ironing and sewing may seem like a more common trade, the craftsmanship visible in the objects presented is nonetheless stimulating. The local lace or bizzilla is perhaps the epitome of local ornament, with patterns as intricate as they are beautiful. The comparison with the filigree object shows another example of local fine craftsmanship.
The Art of Building
“The whole method of construction is summed up and accomplished in one principle: the ordered and skilful composition of various materials, be they squared stones, aggregate, timber or whatever, to form a solid and, as far as possible, integral and unified structure.” (L.B. Alberti) The tools and objects exhibited there are a small selection of the vast and varied trades that contribute to the construction of buildings and structures. From the simple ballata tad-deffun used in the traditional waterproofing methods in Malta, to the most intricate examples of keys and locks, the collection also includes some rare 18th century ironmongery.
From the Field to the Table
This section presents different stages of food production, from the tools used for farming to pots and pans and other cooking utensils. The display underlines the workmanship required in the production and transformation of food but also the ingenuity necessary to create new tools and means of production.
The cooking section includes fine examples of copper pots and local siphon bottles and also a rare knife making machine and a typical Maltese kenur, traditionally used to cook food.
Measuring our World
Most of the items displayed in this room are in actual fact relevant to many of the trades and activities explored in the other rooms. Measuring is indeed necessary in all crafts and businesses, whether with scientific exactitude or perhaps at other times only requiring a basis for comparison.
Furthermore measuring also reflects changes in society and political regimes. In Malta like elsewhere both metric and imperial systems have been used, but also regional units such as the ratal, unit of mass, or the canne, unit of length, and the kejla, unit of volume still in use to sell capers.
The objects presented in this section represent a small, but evocative, selection of some Maltese traditions. Religion is an important catalyst of traditions in Malta and objects such as the ċuqlajta, a large wooden rattle used on Good Friday, are unique to the local context.
Fireworks are an almost daily occurrence between May and October. However the maskli presented here were used in the privacy of the residences to welcome and celebrate the visit of important guests. Other items illustrate the everyday life and activities, and include spinning tops, pastry cutters and numbered tokens used to recognise a meal left to cook in the baker’s oven.