Almost everyone in Malta has a strong point of view when it comes the conservation of and uses for Malta’s vast built, cultural heritage. Malta, a small country with an overwhelming amount to conserve, has of course to juggle budgets and ensure it provides its citizens with the services they expect of a modern EU state. But, cultural heritage is also about national identity and is increasingly a driver of tourism; it has an important economic, not just historic function in contemporary Malta.
As another portion or two of Malta’s fortifications crumbles before our eyes, Astrid Vella of Malta’s newest NGO active in the environmental field, Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar (FAA), asks some questions of those who are supposedly in the cultural heritage driving seat. Your views on this welcome, of course!
Where do our priorities lie?
In just under one week, towards the end of September, Malta experienced two major heritage setbacks: the closure of Fort St Angelo on account of dangerous, structural cracks; and the collapse of a section of the Floriana fortifications. Neither of these was an overnight development. The deteriorating situation at St Angelo has been known about and highlighted in the press for some time. However, Heritage Malta lacks the funds to carry out the necessary large-scale restoration works required. It’s arguable that the heavy vehicles using the Knight’s old entry ramp, in order to commence works on a hotel on the fort’s flank, have exacerbated the damage.
These are not isolated cases; parts of Fort Ricasoli too seem to have been abandoned to the elements, while parts of St Elmo are in an advanced state of deterioration. The Committee of Guarantee, chaired by President Emeritus Dr. Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, was set up to coordinate the work of Malta’s heritage protection agencies. Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar asks whether this committee is functioning fully. And why have the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage and the MEPA Heritage Management Unit been kept so short of staff that they cannot carry out their duties properly?
With 60 kilometres of bastions, and the citadels of Valletta, Mdina and Gozo all in various stages of deterioration, the Maltese Islands urgently need a national restoration strategy. This would allow those technically competent in the field to draw up a plan of action focusing on the most urgent works to start with and then moving on to other heritage sites in dire need of restoration or a facelift in an organised and coordinated manner. Any such strategy should be made public.
Scrutiny of budgetary management is also called for. While the all-important restoration of the fortifications was neglected for years until €36m of EU funds became available, approximately Є40 million have now somehow been found for the construction of a new Parliament building which could be accommodated elsewhere. FAA once again stresses that rather than going for new grand projects – however positive and beneficial they may be – it is imperative that we first safeguard our iconic monuments like St Angelo which are still very impressive and form part of our collective national heritage and identity.
It was most heartening to read only a short while ago that part of St Elmo is to be restored, while more than a hundred regeneration projects for the Grand Harbour area were planned by the Ministry for Infrastructure. FAA now asks what has happened to these projects? A considerable amount of money was spent publicising them by printing a glossy publication. There was a lot of media publicity at time, as well as an exhibition running for weeks in front of the Law Courts in Valletta. Would it not have been wiser to invest these public funds in restoration works?
It is important to put the fortifications to good use. Even under the knights they enjoyed alternative uses. Provided it is well managed and sustainable, any activity that does not damage the structure – artisanal workshops for instance – could contribute to the upkeep of the fortifications.
FAA again calls for programmes for the retraining of construction personnel to meet the demand for skilled stone restoration operators required by present and future restoration projects. This would open new opportunities for the construction industry, would help to save our built heritage and potentially boost Malta’s cultural tourism standing.
For more information on the work of Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar, see: www.faa.org.mt.
Photo: Courtesy of FAA.