Sunday Times of Malta, 3rd August 2008 –

The primary aim of the proposed extension of the St John’s Co-Cathedral museum is to safeguard the popular Valletta tourist attraction and its treasures, according to the church’s foundation. In a detailed statement the foundation said the project, which has attracted controversy, will significantly ease visitor congestion inside St John’s and help conserve the church – which has become the main cultural tourist attraction, drawing some 450,000 visitors per year.

It has made two proposals: the construction of a three-storey building on the courtyard along Merchants Street to provide additional space and a canteen at roof level, or extending the co-cathedral’s museum by excavating chambers underneath St John’s Street and connecting them to existing underground water reservoirs.

But the environmental NGO Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar said Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s planning director had described the excavation project as “a non starter” due to the risk of potential damage to the cathedral’s foundations. On the other hand he said the authority would consider the proposal to cover the knights’ cemetery with a glass ceiling, FAA said.

However, the foundation has defended the proposed extension, saying it would never risk any real or potential damage to St John’s or any of its possessions.

This was reiterated yesterday when the foundation said an independent environmental impact assessment would be carried out to ensure there was no risk to the cathedral or its adjacent historical buildings.

It said that it has an obligation to retain and promote the sacred character of the co-cathedral “as primarily a House of God and a place of worship”, adding that the extension would relieve the church of the periodic congestion of visitors.

Giving details of the extension, the foundation said the cisterns in front of the cathedral would not be destroyed, but rather cleaned and opened to visitors as part of the new museum.

The foundation said that the existing museum consisted of a number of rooms built in the 1960s to cater for a few thousand visitors a year, and did not contain the spaces and facilities that a museum of its importance required and deserved.

“Priceless collections and treasures are not being exhibited in a manner which is informative, educational or even pleasurable to visitors.

Priceless collections of artefacts in storage are being hidden from view and in certain cases even damaged.”

It said it was prepared to meet any NGO or interested body to explain the dynamics of its proposal, which it described as an “important national project of an unprecedented cultural magnitude”.

Din l-Art Ħelwa yesterday expressed conditional support for the St John’s development, saying that with appropriate safeguards and careful attention to any structural or archaeological issues, the proposal deserved “further study”.

It said in a statement that it favours a search for solutions to increase the exhibition spaces of the museum.

“The public, as well as visitors, stand to benefit from the display of a larger number of artefacts, especially considering the exceptional quality and historic importance of these objects…

“It is imperative that the collection of original artefacts of St John’s is kept together and not dispersed in other museums or locations.

“The collection is unique and should be kept together in its entirety. This also supports the (foundation’s) attempt to find ways to enlarge the existing exhibition spaces at St John’s.”