Free your memories with Andrew Alamango’s Magna Żmien

TEODOR RELJIC speaks to project coordinator Andrew Alamango about Magna Żmien, a Valletta 2018-backed digitisation studio which is seeking to create a multimedia memory bank pertaining to early 20th century Malta

What was the initial spur for Magna zmien, and what were the initial aims for the project?

The 20th century is a particularly interesting period in Maltese history. We have had centuries of cultural and socio-political domination though interestingly, due to the access of technology on a popular level, for the first time we documented our own history for our own personal and community reasons.

However, the access to such records documented, not on paper or stone but on chemical analogue formats, is restricted and generally unavailable. Either these documents are considered too personal or too historically hot. Therefore, we prefer to discuss the Knights of St John rather than our own historical heroes documented on film and record.

The motivating factor for Magna Żmien as a project came out of a realisation that, for all our constant talk about identity, nation and heritage, the popular history of the country is poorly documented. Stories told by the people about their lives and history are poorly represented online. It is hard to find audiovisual reference to people, landscapes, music and events which are also an important make up of our recent 20th century popular history. We usually refer to tangible heritage when we discus national heritage, mainly facades, paintings, churches, bastions and documents. Interestingly, the 20th century has now become nostalgic. We miss the tangibility of analogue machines and their formats... hence, for example, the revival of vinyl.

The idea of ‘retro’ and ‘vintage’, which feed so many of the fads today, are based on a nostalgia for the tangible – the crackle of the old record, the warm image of photo and film and the sound of the playback technology which past generations had gotten so used to using. Now all gone in the digital age, we suffer the illness of disposability of sound and vision. One must ask what is relevant and what do we save for the future, as well as how future generations will be able to access our memories for the 20th century. 

Beyond the simple accumulation of curios and trivia, what would you say that the true, long-term benefits of a project like this could be?

Andrew Alamango
Andrew Alamango

As stated above, the project is not done for the sake of nostalgia. There are many images that go out online through websites – images appropriated because they attract attention. People feel a common nostalgia. For loss? Loss of what?

The aim is not the accumulation of objects, machines and trivia, even though they instigate interest in this day and age. The main aim behind the project is future reference to the memory of Malta. What I mean is that through digitisation, future generations will be able to access the content and have reference (the project is supported and backed up by the National Archives for long term preservation). People say that their family images, films and stories are not important, yet little stories put together constitute the memory, a snapshot of a time and space whether visual or aural, of the community, village, town, island and region.

They are documents, which although considered unimportant and populist, are a reference of how we once lived together, in our families and communities, in our environment and with the technology of the day. The relevance of the people’s stories is far bigger than they might imagine. Furthermore, besides the fact that it is now getting more and more urgent to transfer the content from analogue to digital due to obsolete formats and their playback machines, we realise that we are living in a time where the rate of change is so fast that we are not only losing memory as to how places looked before, but also how we lived and what we gave value to, habits and lifestyle.

Also, when the technology became accessible to people, we started to document our own histories. I believe the narrative told by the content stored on these formats, told by the people, is quite different to that ‘provided’ or withheld by national institutions and archives. These institutions documented Maltese history. We have archives as a consequence of Government and State activity. Not to give it less importance, but the story told by the people is also no less important. Archives today play a very important political and artistic role when one discusses identity and concepts of nation and state. The popular collections and their content, I feel, tell a different narrative, one which is more congruent and reflective of the whole region and its people rather than of a separate people and nation. This is a grass-roots approach to history, where we are all heroes in the story. Whether it’s simply running across Ghadira beach at the age of five, or a little recording of our grandmother singing.

Magna Żmien, therefore, intends to collect, digitise, and tell as well as give importance to the stories of everyday heroes; the swimmers, the recordists, the amateur film maker, the poet, the singer, giving importance to the stories of love and absence between Maltese diaspora recording on audio reels in the 50s and 60s, to the film your uncle made while on holiday from Australia when he documented the village feasts and the family outings year after year, the swims and trips to Ghar Lapsi and Ramla Bay. All memories until now forgotten, lying trapped on their physical formats. This is why Magna Żmien’s slogan is ‘free your memories!’ Salvage them, access them and share them. We have created and set up a digitisation studio for the very purpose of converting the analogue and at risk formats to digital. 

Are there particular historical projects you hope to be able to shed some light on with this project? And why do you think these particular periods would be so relevant to Malta?

This project is also a good opportunity for research, advocation for digitisation and bringing people together for a common and neutral purpose to salvage their own story and not be forgotten. Clearly there are many interesting historical collections, and archives, though our main aim right now is to salvage that which may lie in people’s wardrobes and drawers, left forgotten and disintegrating. This is a good opportunity for people to regain access, share the memories and describe the past through living memory, before it is too late. Our next generation will be building new cities unfounded on a past history, without such reference.

Finally, what are some of the ways people can contribute to this project?

We’re appealing to people to form part of this community and movement. We are currently limited in resources and inform people to be selective – bring in, but not all; bring the best! The most magnificent of your memories. Contribute, and you get the original back as well as a digital copy of it. We’re collecting sound and vision formats (all formats and themes are listed on our website). All content will be stored and saved at archival standards. We will ‘showcase’ some stories by clipping, collaging and reassembling content in new ways, taking memories, images associations and giving new relevance to them is the idea. This will involve a series of community events of research and showcasing for the year of 2018, as part of the Cultural Programme of Valletta 2018 – European Capital of Culture.

We are conducting research and collecting from four localities including: Gozo, Mellieha, Siggiewi and Birgu.  Of course, this does not mean that we are not interested in other content form other localities. In the meantime, people are encouraged to get with us through all of our available channels (see note below).   

We are happy to sit down with contributors and go through collections and select. We are not interested in keeping people’s collections, but in transferring them. The best way that people can contribute is by contacting us regarding a collection they might want to convert and share with the project, also by spreading the news about the project! The creation of a community is vital to the success of this movement, and benefits all.