The National Museum of Natural History is situated at Mdina in an eighteenth century palace, restructured by Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, with plans of Charles Francois de Mondion. This took place in 1726, with Vilhena Palace, designed in Parisian Baroque style, substituting the original building of the medieval Universita. The palace also served as the law courts of the Universitas. Some prison cells are found within the palace, where Mikiel Anton Vassalli, considered as father of the Maltese language, was held.
Vilhena Palace also served as a temporary hospital during 1837’s cholera outbreak, as a sanatorium for British troops in 1860, and as a hospital for tuberculosis patients in the early twentieth century. In the mid-1960s the palace was intended to become a museum. However, in view of the bombardments of the Second World War the building suffered severe structural cracks. It was not until 1973 that it was officially inaugurated as a National Museum of Natural History. The main responsibility of the museum is the acquisition, collection and conservation of natural history material, with importance given to local biota. Serving as an important research institution, the value of the collections depends on the information available relating to the material.
Preceding the existence of official museums, various individuals had their own private collections. The first documented collection of antiquities, which included one branch of unworked coral and one tusk of a small elephant, belonged to Giovanni Francesco Abela, who listed the local flora and fauna, as also did Canon Giovanni P. Francesco Agius de Soldanis, known for his palaeontological collection. Prior to the present museum, the Museums Department had a Natural History Section that by the 1930s had two curators - Giuseppe Despott who focused on natural history and Dr Lewis Mizzi who managed the crystallographic collection. Despott’s successor was Dr Joseph G. Baldacchino. Unfortunately, various collections were destroyed during the Second World War, and the Natural History Section was not considered until 1963, when it was decided to set up the current museum. The stored collections started being brought out after many years, and since storage conditions were not appropriate, many specimens became useless for scientific purposes. Harry Micallef was curator between 1966-1970, with his main responsibility being the setting up of the new museum in Vilhena Palace. Another curator, specialised in ornithology, was Carmelo de Lucca. The curator of geology, palaeontology and Ghar Dalam Cave, Dr George Zammit Maempel, held his post for many years and hence gave a lot of contributions. Following the untimely deaths of Micallef and de Lucca, Joe Vella-Gaffiero was in charge of the zoological displays at the museum. Upon his retirement, the post of curator was taken up by the John J. Borg in 2001, who specialises on the ecology of sea-birds and micro-mammals.
The display areas within the Museum have been much enhanced recently. These start off with a number of portraits of pioneers of Maltese natural sciences. A section is then dedicated to Malta’s national bird, Blue Rock Thrush, and national plant, Maltese Centaury, a Maltese endemic. The George Zammit Maempel Halls give a view to Maltese geology, depicting that Malta’s stratigraphic succession consists of five main layers. Starting from the lowest layer, these are Lower Coralline Limestone, Globigerina Limestone, Clays, Greensand and Upper Coralline Limestone. The display area dedicated to palaeontology, which denotes that very old animal remains are not found in Malta since the rock formation of the islands is young, mostly includes fossil remains of the Tertiary Period. A last showcase includes remains of the Maltese Quaternary Period, where of interest is a tusk of a pygmy elephant, the teeth of a pygmy hippopotamus, and a lower jaw of a Maltese giant dormouse.
Along one of the corridors one can note a series of geological maps and related sketches, including geological maps of Malta and Gozo. A further display area is dedicated to reptiles, which includes several local and exotic species of lizards, snakes and turtles. Of interest are the different races of the endemic Maltese Wall Lizard. Another small display is that which highlights the most significant steps in human evolution, where one can view various skulls and tools. Another hall displays the skeletal anatomy of vertebrates, incorporating the delicate bones of a bat and a tiny shrew.
A small hall is then dedicated to marine ecosystems, with several whale bones and various showcases that depict sharks, benthic fauna and crustaceans, amongst others. The G. Despott Halls are dedicated to ornithology. One can here view different types of locally-recorded species, such as grebes and gulls, along with bird’s eggs from all over Europe. Dioramas that display Maltese habitats are also present, comprising, amongst others, one dedicated to birds of the Maltese cliff habitat, one depicting the importance of rubble walls, and one showing the diversity of animals that frequent valleys. On the other side of these exhibits, displays concerning Maltese breeding birds are found. One shows some bird species that are extinct as regular breeding birds in Malta, while another depicts the significance of creating new habitats like the Ghadira and Simar nature reserves for new breeding birds. Other showcases incorporate local breeding seabirds, and regular and irregular breeding species. Information on the various habits of birds and on the study of birds through bird ringing is found along a corridor close to one of the ornithology halls.
One can then walk through various dioramas of ecosystems, ranging from European woodland to African savannah, with various animals of varying size being presented in their natural context, and with predator-prey relationships being depicted. The A. Caruana Gatto Hall then includes a collection of shelled local and exotic animals, including snails and octopuses, amongst which is a selection of local land, freshwater and marine shells, with the most noteworthy item being the large flying squid washed ashore in 1989 at St. Paul’s Bay. Another display is that dedicated to insects, which includes butterflies, moths, beetles, dragonflies, bees and wasps, as well as a series of dioramas. An interesting display is that which highlights the ecological importance of the islands of Filfla, Fungus Rock, St. Paul’s and Comino, which islands host a variety of species that have adapted to isolation. Scale models of these islands and of four races of the Maltese Wall Lizard are included. The L. Mizzi Hall is then dedicated to minerals, which display is in fact just a small part of Lewis Mizzi’s vast collection. It includes at least 850 pieces of rocks and minerals, with both raw material and worked pieces of art and jewellery.
Biological collections at the museum have increased throughout the years through various acquisitions, namely donations presented by Maltese citizens. Some material was donated from overseas. The reference collections comprise over 25,000 rocks and minerals, and over 150,000 lots of local and exotic shells and insects, amongst others. The fossil collection is also of significance. Apart from the collections, one also finds a library that holds more than 4,000 titles on natural sciences, with much dedicated to eighteenth- and nineteenth- century publications.
Source: Heritage Malta