I must admit that I had never heard of the Bir Mula Heritage Museum prior to this encounter. Sadly, I’m probably not the only one.
This unique building, which is over a thousand years old, houses different eras within its confines, in that its three levels yield artefacts belonging to prehistoric times, the Punic period, as well as the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras. Its construction phases encompass the Arab years, but most importantly, it also documents the evolution of the town of Bormla, a maritime port and thriving city.
The most amazing thing however, is that the house and its historical significance had been in peril of being lost forever. It had been previously used for sedentary purposes; the lower levels filled with building material and used as a dumping ground. But one man, Mr John Vella, director, curator and private owner of Bir Mula Heritage, had recognised the value of the house, and saved the historic building from its inevitable and gradual decay. John was very happy to talk to us about his discoveries.
Image: Mr John Vella
What sorts of things are donated by patrons for the museum on the first floor?
People unfortunately tend not to value unwanted old memorabilia belonging to their families, or else perhaps, they have no space for them at home. They’re all welcome to donate them to us. We’ve been given traditional dock-yard wooden tools, 19th century clothing, even old photos from the 1940s. We proudly have a sample of the first gear ever worn by the Saint Georges FC, the Cospicua football team, from 1890. We had discovered some old drawings by the famous Maltese sculptor and painter, Giuseppe Caruana (1887 – 1973), found among some bills and papers destined for dumping. If the Vellas hadn’t saved them, they would’ve been lost forever. There’s even machinery which had belonged to a nearby bakery in the 1860s and old radio sets from World War II. The artefacts we found downstairs in the cellar, belonging to prehistoric and Punic times, are also on display here.
Are there any legends related to the building?
There are plenty of rumours, theories and legends. In fact, this house was known locally as The House of Conspiracies. The Knights Templar were rumoured to have hidden here during the time of the persecution against them. Also, various finds point to the fact that the Knights of the Order of St John and the Ottomans used to meet here secretly to discuss terms of surrender. Being close to the dock and to the centre of mercantile and cultural activity at the time, the building was perfectly placed for it.
Another rumour is that the Knights used to meet here unofficially to determine who was the most promising candidate to become the new Grandmaster, before officially appointing him in Valletta. We also suspect that during the time when Malta was dominated by the Napoleonic French troops, rebels used to meet and conspire here. In fact, there’s a record of a fire that had taken place here at the time. The French had set fire to the whole street after finding out about the conspiracy.
What was your aim in renovating the house?
The city of Bormla is very underrated. It even used to be stigmatised. I had wished to destroy this perception and show that Bormla is an important part of the Maltese heritage. Throughout the years, this aim has changed in that I realised that I also wish for Bir Mula Heritage to be a living museum and cultural centre. I never really wanted it to be a museum focusing on important historical figures; there are already many of those. Instead, I wanted to highlight the importance of the common people, without whom society would not flourish and develop. Bir Mula Heritage isn’t just about dead stone and items. We’ve worked to make it a dynamic cultural centre in Cospicua. This is why a number of activities are organised here every month.
Bir Mula Heritage is privately owned and funded. This must surely be a lifetime achievement for you.
I’d never have had the dedication and will to work so much on it had it not been for the support and love of my mother, Josephine Lucy Vella, who still helps me daily to this day. We must always cherish our families and communities. This is a value I wish to highlight and which provides the foundation of the idea behind Bir Mula.
Bir Mula Heritage is a centre promoting creativity. It hosts a number of art exhibitions, a yearly film festival, and provides an open space for free lectures and other family activities. People have also claimed to have seen or heard ghosts at Bir Mula, which is why we also organise a number of ghost walks.
More information can be found on the Bir Mula website.