The Malta Independent on Sunday, 3rd August 2008 –
The proposed extension of the museum of St John’s Co-Cathedral is specifically intended to safeguard and protect the fabric and treasures of the Co-Cathedral and, above all, to preserve and safeguard the Co-Cathedral itself, the St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation has stated.

In a statement, the Foundation stressed that a primary consideration for the proposed project is that it will significantly ease the congestion of visitors inside the Co-Cathedral and hence contribute to the essential conservation of the church. The Foundation wants to ensure that no damage to the Co-Cathedral or to any of its historical adjacent buildings will be made.

The main reason that has led the Foundation to propose that the extended museum will be adjacent or below the Co-Cathedral is in fact the intrinsic and direct link between the extended museum and the preservation of the church itself. Contrary to what has been reported in sections of the media, the motivation behind the project is conservation.

It said that it is important for the general public to realise that the number of tourists visiting St John’s Co-Cathedral each year is now exceeding the entire population of Malta and Gozo and that, on peak days, up to 4,000 tourists enter through the Co-Cathedral’s doors.

The Foundation has the obligation to retain and promote the sacred character of the Co-Cathedral as primarily a House of God and a place of worship. The Foundation’s proposal should relieve the church of the periodic congestion of visitors.

It stressed that the proposed project is not expected to and will not be allowed to pose any potential or real risks to the Co-Cathedral or any of its historical adjacent buildings. An independent environmental impact assessment will be carried out to ensure that this is the case. The Foundation appealed for sensible argumentation and analysis of the facts and reiterated that while it was perfectly legitimate and healthy for a discussion on the proposed project to take place, it is not acceptable that sensational or unfounded and alarmist arguments are made. It reiterated that it was prepared to meet any NGO or interested body to fully explain the dynamics of its proposals.

The Foundation explained that it had submitted two outline applications to Mepa on 11 January (one for an underground extension to the museum and the other for an above-ground extension) to be in a position to carry out a professional impact assessment on both projects. The Foundation believes that the underground option is the better proposal as it would not affect the cityscape.

The Foundation understands that submitting the two applications at the same time might have confused the general public. It had, however, been advised to submit two applications given the need for all options to be considered simultaneously. It said that according to the research carried out to date, the underground option would not cause any damage to any remains of historical significance. For example, the cisterns in front of the Co-Cathedral will not be destroyed as is being claimed by some; but would be cleaned and opened to visitors as part of the new museum.

It explained that the proposed extension of the museum is an important national project of unprecedented cultural magnitude and that the plans for the proposed project are based on extensive technical and professional advice.

The Foundation said that the large numbers of historical artefacts and treasures by renowned artists, including Caravaggio, that embellish the Co-Cathedral form an important and integral part of Malta’s artistic heritage.

The facts are, the Foundation explained, that St John’s is the pride of the Maltese nation and has also become the main cultural tourist attraction for visitors to the island, attracting around 450,000 visitors each year. Unfortunately, the present facilities cannot cope with this flow of human traffic as there is an evident inherent lack of appropriately designed and controlled spaces. The Foundation said that in the present circumstances, it was difficult to continue handling and adequately deal with the increase in visitors. On the other hand, St John’s is far too important a tourist attraction for Malta’s tourism to contemplate barring tourists from visiting it when viable options – such as that being proposed by the Foundation to spread the large number of visitors over a larger area – exist.

The Foundation said that the existing restricted and restrictive spaces being used as a museum consist of a number of rooms built in the 1960s to cater for a few thousand visitors a year. These rooms do not contain the spaces and facilities that a museum of the importance of St John’s requires and deserves. Priceless collections and treasures are not being exhibited in a manner that is informative, educational or even pleasurable to visitors. Regrettably, in the current situation, visitors are therefore not receiving the unique, enlightening experience that St John’s Co-Cathedral and Museum should provide.

The Foundation also reiterated that the priceless collections of artefacts in storage are being hidden from view and in certain cases even damaged. The largest collection of Rubens’ based tapestries in the world – which the Co-Cathedral possesses – is in a poor state of conservation and, in 2006, the Foundation launched a 10-year project costing e1.5 million to restore the collection. The proposed museum will enable these tapestries to be displayed together as a complete set – as they were meant to be – and in the appropriate climate and light controlled environment. In the Foundation’s view, splitting this unique collection to display parts of it in scattered rooms or buildings around Valletta is manifestly wrong.

The Foundation reassures the general public and the media that it would never take any sort of risks that would involve any potential, apparent or real damage to the Co-Cathedral itself or to any of the historical adjacent buildings or structures. The Foundation will be engaging the services of leading experts to ensure the preservation of the “treasure” it was entrusted by State and Church to administer. It stressed that the preservation of the Co-Cathedral and its contents – while making them available for the appreciation of as many people as safely possible – is its main priority.

The Foundation noted that other European countries that hold similar priceless gems have made significant investments to extend or build museums to ensure the adequate preservation and display of collections, to enhance the experience of visitors as well as to have better control of the logistics and dynamics of the flow of people. These museums, the Foundation explained, are popular destinations on their own merit and have enriched the cultural status of the respective countries. The extended museum at St John’s would allow the Foundation to adequately display the priceless collections it possesses (using adequate space, lighting, climate control, installing proper management flow of people, reading areas, and so on), thereby also protecting them for the generations to follow.

In order to give a clear picture of its intention, the Foundation felt it should list some of the items in the Collections of St John’s Co-Cathedral that would be exhibited in the extended museum and that are currently locked in stores or not adequately displayed due to the very serious lack of space. The list provided on the opposite page is not to be considered as fully comprehensive and complete.

The 17th century Flemish Tapestries

• The complete set comprises 29 pieces woven on designs by Peter Paul Rubens

The Sacred Vestments

• A collection given by Grand Master Nicolas Cotoner in 1665 • A collection given by Grand Master Jean Paul Lascaris in 1640 • A collection given by Grand Master Adrien de Wignacourt in 1605 • A collection given by Grand Master Manoel Pinto de Fonseca between 1741 and 1773

The Choral Books

The Choral Books consist of 19 illuminated choral books:

• 10 given by Grand Master L’Isle Adam in 1533 • 7 given by Grand Master Verdale between 1587 and 1595 • 2 given by Grand Master De Paule between 1623 and 1636

The Silver Collection

The silver collection is almost exclusively ecclesiastical silverware. It consists of several unique items such as two monstrances that should be given importance in the manner in which they are exhibited. The collection also holds several chalices and other decorative church silver.

The Picture Gallery

Paintings in this gallery include works from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

Relics and Reliquaries

Several relics and reliquaries including the relic of the True Cross.

The Crucifix Collection

This collection consists of six crucifixes including:

• The ivory crucifix • The bronze crucifix • The silver crucifix

Individual Artefacts (requiring an area or section to be exhibited in a manner which highlights their importance)

• The St Jerome painting by Caravaggio • The Cirro Ferri Monstrance • The Cappella Ardente 1726 (approximately 12 metres high) • The Bronze Image of Christ the Saviour