Times of Malta 13 August 2008, by Fiona Galea Debono –

The St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation’s application to increase its museum space by constructing a three-storey building in the courtyard on Merchants Street is not its favoured option.

Those plans are merely a possible alternative to excavation, prepared on the recommendations of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, the foundation told The Times.

The foundation’s first, preferred and “most feasible” option is the roofing over of the courtyard with a transparent material to create a visitors’ centre, and the excavation of a chamber in St John’s Street to house the complete and unique collection of 29 tapestries – the largest set based on Rubens’s cartoons in the world. This would be a fitting showcase for their “sheer monumental size”.

The Times has obtained visual representations of the two parts of this proposal.

Both proposals have come under siege by the NGO Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar, which claims that the developments would violate the clauses of the co-cathedral’s National Monument Grade I scheduling, as well as causing irremediable damage to Valletta’s underground chambers, tunnels, channels and water cisterns.

An architect commissioned by the Valletta local council, Robert Musumeci, has also said that excavation would pose an unacceptable risk.

But the foundation is strongly justifying its cause, saying the preferred option would see the courtyard remain a monument, being well aware that the cemetery of the knights within it is sacred ground.

In its impassioned justification of the proposed development, it is insisting that the museum was not being built for the sake of it, but was a dire need, particularly in view of the fact that St John’s is the most visited site in Malta. Last year, it welcomed over 450,000 visitors, and last month, it saw up to 4,000 tourists on certain days.

“This is simply not sustainable and is causing too much damage to the interior,” the foundation said, questioning whether the objectors were happy about the fast-vanishing tomb stones.

A visit to St John’s was not a pleasurable, intellectual, or comfortable experience for the tourist, who was crammed with another 1,000 visitors, it maintained. The heat and humidity, caused also by the bodies and their respiration, not only created discomfort for the tourists, but damaged the co-cathedral.

A visit was not enlightening, due to the lack of time, caused by the fact that visitors were practically pushed through by the influx, the foundation said.

St John’s was also losing the character of a church and felt “more like a marketplace than a sanctuary.

“Instead of controlling the amount of visitors, let us have a larger museum, which would exhibit in a proper manner the true legacy of the Knights of the Order of St John,” the foundation appealed.

“We want to show the whole collection of tapestries, not half of it,” it insisted. As it is, the visitor did not enjoy the full impact.

Displaying its artifacts in another property was not an option either “because they are St John’s patrimony. This is not a collection bought over the years; they are gifts from the Grand Masters and knights to St John’s. St Jerome was left in a will to the co-cathedral. Would it be right to display it elsewhere? The tapestries were from Grand Master Perellos to hang in the nave, so they must be exhibited as a set within the precincts of St John’s,” the foundation insisted.

Its view of keeping its original artefacts together and not dispersing them in other museums is shared by another NGO, Din l-Art Ħelwa.

The project is still in a fluid state and its parameters would be clearly defined following the carrying out of an environmental impact assessment. The choice is between digging, or building, but the foundation is not keen on developing the Merchants Street side, it reiterated.