The Malta Independent on Sunday, 10 August 2008 – Editorial
It is still rather premature to speak at this point about the proposal for a visitors’ interpretation centre at St John’s in the midst of so much clamour, and when the concrete proposals themselves have not yet been made public.

This is not how things are done. It is understandable that when dealing with Mepa, an applicant has to have a range of options to vary the final application according to the feedback the applicant receives from Mepa officials. But this is St John’s, Malta’s dearest and most noble building, not any other Mepa application.

One must also point out a further consideration. St John’s position is completely enviable, in that for all the complications regarding its ownership and thus the composition of the foundation’s board, it is relatively autonomous. It has charged entrance fees and has used the funds wisely to refurbish parts of it. Much remains to be done, of course, but look at the rest of Malta’s heritage and notice the dearth of visitors in practically all museums. This means low revenues, hence refurbishment work that takes ages, capital investment that cannot be done, and a huge number of Malta’s most important treasures lying in reserve collections that will probably never see the light of day.

The Majolica collection that was to be installed in the Auberge de Castille cellars is still collecting dust. Thus, too, the many reserve collections of the many museums, and agencies like Heritage Malta, especially the immense patrimony of Maltese contemporary art that lies awaiting the creation of a national museum of contemporary art. Apart, of course, from the National Museum of Fine Arts that has been awaiting expansion for decades in vain.

And what about the protection of the many Neolithic archaeological remains and money for the State to purchase land where there are enough indications of more archaeological discoveries to be made? And yes, why not, money to save from destruction and obliteration sites and discoveries that would otherwise be lost? Does Malta have only one hypogeum?

Yes, the position of St John’s is very, very privileged.

It has, it would seem, generated a revenue stream that will enable it to carry on with the restoration projects it is doing. And also, it seems, to greatly enlarge and improve the museum, to create an interpretation centre where it can exhibit not just what is now exhibited in a cramped manner in the museum but also so many other artefacts that lie hidden from view or stored and deteriorating.

In the press release issued last week, the foundation cogently argued the need for a better conservation and exhibition of its treasures.

The problem, as all know by now, regards the nature of the kind of interpretation centre the foundation wants to create. While the creation of a cafeteria on top of the burial ground of the martyrs of 1565 would be a blasphemy and an insult, there is probably nothing wrong with a roof garden as long as it is sensitively done and shielded from the street.

The problems lie in the proposal to utilize the two huge water reservoirs that lie just in front of the cathedral and in the works to create access, which, it is feared, might cause damage to the cathedral’s fabric.

The rather recent re-discovery of the two reservoirs and the photos that have appeared in the press, including this paper, have whetted the appetite of many to see for themselves what lies beneath the square. That, of course, is no reason to tamper with such remains, nor with the remains of the knights’ palazzo that used to be across the road from St John’s before it was blown away by wartime bombs.

The foundation has still not made a clear case to use the reservoirs with all accompanying dangers. It has yet to make a clear case for the absolute need to undertake this venture and that there is no alternative to this.

On the other hand, the suggestion that has been made to hive off sections of the exhibits and somehow fit them in houses across the road is simply a non-starter. Something that should have never been conceived at all.

The foundation must also prove that there is no other unusable space within the cathedral precincts themselves to house parts of the collection. What about the two long corridors flanking the cathedral, for instance? Or the crypt underneath the (Caravaggio’s Beheading) oratory? Or other nooks and crannies seen in the foundation’s CD that people unaccustomed to St John’s might not have placed?

The public debate must be welcomed by the members of the foundation rather than perceived as an intrusion. The public must also understand the foundation’s commitment to and in favour of St John’s and the hard work which is now becoming increasingly evident all around the cathedral.

But as the Mepa process drags on and on, and more details emerge, there will inevitably be a tendency by the public to take sides without really going into the issue, and to cry out in horror against any or all aspects of the proposal. There is an underlying risk that, just as happened with the Royal Opera House ruins, the Majolica Exhibition, and so many other good ideas, they will all be shot down in scorn and nothing is done in the end. That’s why, 60 years after the war ended, we still have to put up with that shameful sight of those ruins every time we enter Valletta.