Mpowered. By Women for Women: Joan Abela and Caroline Tonna

Mpowered. By Women for Women: Joan Abela and Caroline Tonna

Meet Joan and Caroline– Two ladies with one thing in common…their love and passion for history and historical archives and artefacts.



Joan, also adequately nicknamed, Joan of Archives is a historian and founder of the Notarial Archives Foundation while Caroline Tonna is the curator of Palazzo Falson, the oldest building in Mdina, and a treasurer at the Notarial Archives Foundation. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with, working to preserve and save historical archives and to create awareness about Maltese heritage. Scroll down to listen to the full podcast. 

Joan admits that she has always been interested in history from a very young age. ‘I remember my father asking me what I would like as a gift, and I always wanted history books. He used to come back from work with history books and I was fascinated. He was a history lover as well. A book for me was like a time machine. I was always intrigued by history. I grew up with it and fell in love with it. It was something so natural for me. It was a pleasure listening to history even at school. I would just dream of living in the past to see what it was like.’

Joan was also the kind of girl who would prefer to stay inside and read. ‘I spent my summer days reading. Since we used to live in Floriana, there are a lot of public gardens there. I was always the kind of girl who preferred reading and staying inside while the other kids played outside. I’m a dreamer and I think that’s what pushed me to persevere in life.’

On the other hand, Caroline was not an early history lover like Joan. ‘Every time I went abroad with my parents, they used to take us to museums, and I always imagined things coming to life. I was lost there. I was also interested in fashion. That’s why I specialised in dress history. As you grow older, you meet different people and carve your own niche. My first fashion show – I was more fascinated in behind the scenes.’

Although Caroline is the curator of Palazzo Falson, she does not simply look after the artefacts and take care of the management of the museum. Her role goes way beyond that. ‘I look at the best investment and I look at the strengths and interests of my team and give them ownerships of small projects. I try to fire their passions. I believe it’s the people that make the place and if they are passionate, they would want to show off what we have.’

Joan agrees completely with Caroline here. ‘The thing that takes up most of my time is encouraging my team. I also try and juggle with as many things as possible. I am a mother, a lecturer and a volunteer so my day is split up into various things.’

Delving into the Notarial Archives Foundation, Joan explains that the aim of the foundation is to support and preserve the collection of Notarial documents. ‘For many years, the notarial archives were poorly kept. My journey began when I had to visit the archives as an undergraduate. Once I got in, I got a cultural shock and there were documents everywhere. Most documents were at a risk of being thrown away.’

Revealing that there are documents as early as 1431, a will from Gozo, the foundation’s aim is to raise awareness because these documents are underappreciated, and some do not realise how precious they are.

‘These documents give us our identity. The Notarial Archives is the only place that can give us a 600-year-old history that is interrupted.’

That is why Joan came up with the fantastic scheme called Adopt a Document. ‘The archives offer a vast range of subjects so there is anything for anyone. The scheme has worked really well in which anyone can adopt a document that is oozing off history. The task is to look for the document and present it to the right people.’

The foundation’s main aim is to preserve these documents and to make sure that they will continue to live for many more centuries. ‘A lot of studying and prioritising needs to go in when preserving the documents. The first thing we did when the foundation took over the Notarial Archives was to replace the wooden shelving with metal ones since wood attracts insects. The other step was to get professionals onboard.’

Joan and Caroline explain that most of their volunteers are women and that the only requirement to become a volunteer is that you have a passion for history and for preserving it. ‘Our volunteers are serving the country and they are proud of it. Their love for history is what pushes you forward to persevere. You will find a lot of stumbling blocks, especially from people who should know better. So, perseverance is key.’

Caroline remarks that although Palazzo Falson is not their property, they love it as if it were their own. ‘You are looking after something that is not yours. But somehow you want it to be yours because you love it. It becomes part of you. However, the owners are the people who make the final decisions. We are sweating it out to make sure that people get a real feel of the place and to present it in the correct manner.’

From our conversations with Joan and Caroline, it is clear that without these documents, we can only invent history and not write it.

‘We encourage young ones to take positions in the historical sector so that we can preserve it better. My greatest dream is that the foundation would be in an executive role of the archives and that our vision of turning into a research and conservation would materialise. I would like the foundation to run the archives so we can give the nation new stories and a brighter future.’ 

Listen to the full podcast below. 

Joan and Caroline, we are thrilled that you exist and that you are fighting for these huge parts of history, to not only make it accessible, but also to preserve it for many years to come. Thank you for all your hard work.

Is-Siġill collection comes to life from a joint collaboration between Mvintage and the Notarial Archives Foundation. The typography and designs of the manuscripts are what inspired this collection. Each pendant is unique and is designed to reflect a wax seal. The letters are also uniquely designed to serve as a reminder to its wearer that their ‘seal’ is authentic and truly theirs