Times of Malta, 20 June 2008 –
Culture Minister Dolores Cristina told Parliament on Wednesday that more than 500 pieces of works of art of a certain cultural value were repossessed from people who were not eligible to have them in their possession.
Introducing the estimates of Heritage Malta and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, the minister said that this was the result of the close collaboration between the superintendence and the police.
Earlier, Mrs Cristina noted that people had become more conscious of the social, economic and spiritual value of Malta’s heritage, which also belonged to the whole international community. A society which protected its heritage acknowledged its identity and looked to the future.
The 2002 legislation protecting Malta’s heritage provided for the superintendence, which consisted of a number of entities working closely together and in coordination with others, among them voluntary organisations and local councils.
Referring to the estimates, she said there were instances when Heritage Malta, when in its infancy, did not exhaust its budget but last year it generated revenues of Lm1.8 million (€0.8 million). This year’s government subvention has been decreased by €1 million. But, Mrs Cristina said, this did not mean that it would not help the organisation, particularly in capital expenditure.
During this year Heritage Malta, which the minister described as “an adventurous agency” started two projects: the refurbishment of the War Museum and the Mndajra and Ħaġar Qim visitors’ centre project.
The superintendence of cultural heritage had a wide network of surveillance of the cultural heritage, including restoration and excavations, and the keeping of the archives. One of the first responsibilities was that the cultural heritage remains in the public domain.
Two main projects have been undertaken: “Crossings – movements of people and movement s of cultures”, in collaboration with Italy, France, Greece and Cyprus as part of Culture 2000, which was a great success and a national cultural heritage inventory management system.
Labour MP Roderick Galdes said that although it was true that Malta had to safeguard its heritage for future generations, sometimes the view taken was too optimistic.
There were problems that one had to face, such as limited natural resources, and a lack of human resources and sense of pride.
He mentioned a number of initiatives taken during the year, such as that of the Silent Warriors and the Caravaggio exhibitions. It was unfortunate that there had been no effort to use them to attract tourists.
Over the past year, the promotion of Malta’s assets had greatly improved. However, when it came to the Internet portal there was room for improvement. He also questioned the implementation of the new ticketing system.
A commendable initiative was the course offered by Heritage Malta on the protection of the Maltese heritage. Mr Galdes said that at times, however, Heritage Malta seemed to be losing its direction. Aspects of Malta’s heritage, such as the temples and the fortifications were not given importance and lacked restoration. Rather than focusing on new projects, which were not within its framework, the government should see to these shortcomings.
It was time that the Government stopped regarding heritage as a simple tourism tool, but had to safeguard heritage for the sake of future generations.
He commended the coordination between the various voluntary organisations which worked to safeguard our heritage. People who wished to work in the sector should be issued with a warrant for carrying out conservation. Although there was a serious lack of human resources in this field, those who chose to work in it still found it very hard to find a job.
Concluding, Mr Galdes said there was the urgent need of having a clear rehabilitation plan for Valletta, through a serious management plan. The Opposition was ready to give its fullest contribution because it feels that Valletta risks losing its world heritage site record.
Labour MP Justyne Caruana asked why a manager had not been appointed for sites in Gozo with the post being occupied by an acting manager who also had to carry out administrative duties. It was not professional for the same person to do both technical and administrative duties and the situation was leading to the fragmentation of the technical duties in Gozo.
She pointed out that the Gozo Museum of Archaeology project had to be concluded by the end of 2005 but to date it was not yet concluded and there were still several empty spaces not filled with graphics and information.
A computer interactive facility, which had been very popular, was removed. The museum also lacked the CCTV which had been removed at the beginning of the project.
On the Kola Windmill in Xagħra, Dr Caruana said this was left abandoned in the past year and it was in such a bad state that it had to be dismantled since it had become a danger to visitors.
Vodafone had given a sponsorship for the rehabilitation of Ġgantija Temples, but no work had as yet been carried out except for some embellishment. A protective wooden paving been removed and visitors were currently walking on the original ground.
Dr Caruana said that the bottom of the newly-installed showcases at the natural sciences museum had caved in and they could not be moved. Moreover, a number of exhibits were being damaged because the material used for the showcases was not compatible.
On the Superintendence of Culture, she said it was not enough for this to have observer status at the Malta Environment and Planning Authority; it needed to have a stronger voice within the authority so that it would be in a position to implement its core functions.
Even though the superintendence was saying that development at Ramla would leave a highly negative impact on the area, the situation was that although no permit had been issued yet, certain works had already started. Reports were lodged with Mepa but no action had been taken. This was unacceptable.
Dr Caruana referred to the superintendence report where it stated that a few metres away from Tal-Kus at Xewkija, there were archaeological remains and the surrounding landscape had to be protected.
In the area, she said, there were the highest number of people with cancer in the Maltese islands, due to the amount of emissions and radiation. However, Wasteserv was insisting on having its waste transfer station in this area. The Wasteserv board, she said, included a person who was a PN candidate in the last general election and who had been elected a Xewkija councillor. However, this person was from Rabat and perhaps did not know that the people of Xewkija did not want this waste transfer station. This was a conflict of interest and she expected some form of reaction from the government. Unless one was forthcoming, she would suspect that this was some form of manoeuvre against the people of Xewkija.
Labour MP Owen Bonnici said that in the era of globalisation, the culture and cultural heritage sector was what differentiated one country from another.
It was good to see that an emphasis was being placed on management, conservation, interpretation and marketing.
All the Maltese, he said, should be proud of Malta’s heritage. One had to appreciate the historic concept of when such wealth was created.
He noted that Malta had three world heritage sites – Valletta, the megalithic temples and the Hypogeum. But how much did the people who did not live in Malta know about them? These places were not even shortlisted in a Euronews programme where people chose their preferred sites.
If Maltese did not know that Malta’s Ħaġar Qim were more important than Stonehenge in the UK, how could one expect foreigners to know? Malta had to market its jewels because no one would be doing this on its behalf,.
He asked why were such jewels not used to attract people who appreciated heritage. Malta, Dr Bonnici said, had to prove that it could be innovative. These sites also had to be managed, conserved and interpreted. Unless an effort was made in this area, all other efforts would be secondary.
Dr Bonnici pointed out that the UK was making great strides forward when it came to the cyber information. It was working on having all its museums online, each offering a virtual exhibition, giving visitors an online interactive experience. A similar development should be considered for Malta’s sites.
It was the role of an authority such as Heritage Malta to try to democratise love for the country’s cultural heritage. This, he said, should come through education. Children should be allowed to grow and flourish culturally. They should be taught to love their cultural heritage and should be encouraged to dream and to create.
Minister Giovanna Debono said the heritage sector was very important, particularly to a small island such as Gozo.
Criticism on the way heritage was protected was always an issue, and in some cases it was justified while others were not. The archaeology museum was just one example, she said, where despite its age it could be described as state-of-the-art museum.
The Ta’ Kola windmill, she said, was another case. While it was true that previous work in this area had not made a difference, it was going to be started all over again.
Criticism was good as it was a sign that people took an interest. Many times heritage was taken for granted, but the process involved a lot of thought and work.
Minister Debono said the government was committed to solving the problems that emanated at the Cittadella. Over the years work had been carried out, with the aim of embellishing its aesthetic appearance. Now, for the first time ever, geological and structural problems were being seen to.
A number of initiatives to safeguard the heritage and to use it as a tool to boost the economy had been implemented. A master plan for the Cittadella, which would take into consideration all the possible aspects related to it and facilitate future decisions, was underway. This would create a framework for the long-term management and protection of the site. The lengthy process, costing some €300,000 through EU funding, was expected to be ready by next year.
The structural problems were being addressed in an ambitious but necessary project which aimed to stabilise the foundations of the walled city. Restoration works would follow. The €7 million project would start once the necessary permissions were obtained. There were other works being carried out, such as the clearing of the walls of shrubs along the bastions. Any endemic species found were protected.
The Ġgantija temples, visited by some 166,000, were also being seen to. A concrete wall which obstructed the view was dismantled and a temporary centre for visitors had been built. Heritage Malta was now trying to find funds to have a conservation plan for this area.
Restoration work was not limited to the Cittadella and Ġgantija but there were other works such as on the only chapel in Gozo left over from the mediaeval era, that of St Cecilia in Għajnsielem.
This went to prove, Mrs Debono said, that criticism was anything but fair. The government was not dealing with the issue superficially; the treatment was long-term.
Concluding, the minister said the vision of seeing Gozo as an ecological island would exploit the island’s limited resources, where national heritage played an important role.
Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco said cultural tourism had to be based on local cultural resources, including traditions, history, museums and cultural activities. This form of tourism had grown to include contemporary culture, an authentic experience through which one could see how the people of the country being visited lived.
A 2003 European Commission communication on tourism emphasised the need to preserve cultural integrity in measures taken for tourism. Sustainable tourism, he said, was tourism which protected a country’s culture.
The communication had concluded that 30 per cent of tourism destinations were chosen because of the presence of historical sites which could be visited. It said that the market for cultural tourism grew 15 to 20 per cent during the past 10 years.
Dr de Marco pointed out that a country’s culture could not be exported to another. It was less seasonal and cultural tourists spent more than those visiting just for the climate.
Cultural tourists were usually over 40, with a relatively higher income and generally spent more than normal tourists.
In Malta, culture was the second biggest motivation tourists gave for visiting. Surveys showed that last year, 160,000 tourists, or 12.8 per cent, were motivated by culture. He admitted he was not happy with this situation since he would like to see many more tourists visiting Malta with their motivation being the country’s unique culture.
Dr de Marco pointed out that percentage wise, Malta most probably had the biggest concentration of historic sites in Europe. This was a concept that ought to be sold abroad.
Cultural tourists spent an average of 8.5 nights in Malta spending around €800 per visit. These tourists generally visited in the shoulder months and this was to our advantage.
The tourism authority was advertising in specialised media, visiting specialised tour operators and taking part in specialised workshops. It was also holding specialised exhibitions on cultural heritage. One such exhibition “Between the Battle, Sword and Cross: Masterpieces of the Armoury of Malta” was to be held later this year in Paris. Dr de Marco said he also believed Malta should have a roving exhibition going round European capital centres.
He paid tribute to organisations which worked in the field culture for their work to promote Malta’s history and culture and said that cultural events also had to continue being promoted abroad. More should also be done for historic sites. He proposed improved cooperation between the war and aviation museums.
Dr de Marco said that he wanted to see the St Elmo project implemented and it was important that a decision on the future of the Old Opera House site was taken. Improvements at the Fine Arts Museum had to continue and cultural sites within towns and villages should be identified and promoted.
Parliamentary Secretary Chris Said said Heritage Malta had given agencies and organisations an example of how to get the best out of EU programmes. The organisation did not rely just on the government’s funds but through its participation in EU programmes it helped the country get better known overseas.
An exhibition on the history of bread in Malta, which had been held in Xagħra through one of these programmes, was now becoming permanent.
Dr Said referred to the several works which had been carried out in Gozo, including extensive works at Ġgantija and at the National Sciences Museum, where an activity area for children had also been developed. He called for the repair of the Kola Windmill, which, he said, had been damaged by the weather.
He referred to an initiative which had been taken with the Xagħra council called “Ġgantija Alive, a Dream”. This, he said, should be held weekly in summer as it gave tourists visiting the site added value.
Dr Said said that there were several councils collaborating with Heritage Malta. Councils, he said, should identify heritage in their localities, inform Heritage Malta of it and get its advice on how to care for it.
Winding up the debate, Minister Cristina said she agreed with Dr Bonnici about the importance of education and since her ministry covered both education and culture, she would be doing her utmost to bring the two together. The best protection cultural heritage could get was educating children from a very young age, she said.
Referring to comments by Dr Caruana, the minister said Heritage Malta was working to fill the post of site manager in Gozo. And as to comments by Mr Galdes, she said that political allegiances of whatever nature were never positive. She expected everyone in the sector to work together without being hindered by anyone. She wanted everyone to contribute and to have policies and not politics as their direction.
Ms Cristina said that the ticketing system had been changed because the old system had depended on a provider that had restrictions on software. The new system permitted networking and there was better accountability and efficiency.
She agreed on the need to market world heritage sites and referred to an initiative in the past days which saw Heritage Malta launching a historic exhibition in Alicante. This exhibition included 200 items and lots of information. It had been an enormous success and been given enormous coverage by the Alicante media so much so that Heritage Malta was contacted by experts from Barcelona who wanted to organise similar initiatives.
When Heritage Malta said they would have to wait till 2010, the Barcelona experts said they were willing to. While in the past Malta was absent from international big exhibitions circles, it was now being sought.
Concluding, Mrs Cristina said local councils were needed to help protect Malta’s heritage. There were a lot of good initiatives going on and work between councils and the central government had always borne positive results.
The votes were approved after a division by 35 votes for and 32 against.