Times of Malta, 27 August 2008 –

The issues surrounding the proposals to develop exhibition space at St John’s Co-Cathedral have touched a raw nerve. This, I suppose, can be expected. All Maltese and many others feel protective over this national monument, steeped as it is in our history and so precious in its architectural and cultural value.

Everyone has its interests at heart. In any debate therefore it is important to understand this. Everyone has the interests of St John’s at heart and there is not one person who would do anything to damage it. This includes the Co-cathedral Foundation which is headed by the eminent Mgr Philip Calleja. It is not their intention to put forward hare-brained schemes or badly thought out proposals which could damage the cathedral. This does not mean that we have to agree, but acceptance of this will move the argument onto a technical level which will ensure that we can arrive at some conclusions.

As the controversy broke, Din l-Art Ħelwa asked the foundation to meet with interested parties including environmental and heritage NGOs, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, the heritage and environment commissions of the Church, Heritage Malta, the Valletta Rehabilitation Committee, the Kamra tal-Periti, the Chamber of Planners and the Valletta Local Council. The objective was to get a better appreciation of the facts and for the foundation to hear the concerns of those present.

What are the basic tenets of the case? The cathedral has about 4,000 visitors per day in peak season; the current traffic flows mean that visitors double back at least twice, thereby spending longer in the church and pacing more than necessary. The tapestries are undergoing restoration but cannot be properly displayed . There are many precious objects which could be shown, but there is insufficient space available at present. These basically are the problems.

The foundation therefore sought to find additional exhibition space (which if one includes the 29 gigantic tapestries is quite considerable) and improving visitor flows and visitor experience. It is after all one of our main attractions to the island. The three monsignors on the foundation, if no one else, are very aware of the religious aspect of the cathedral and are not intent on turning it into a circus or cash cow. Just as one would visit the Vatican in Rome, so do many want to visit St John’s when in Malta.

The foundation was also keen to keep the collections (tapestries, vestments, silver etc.) at the cathedral, as this is the context of the exhibits. They were endowments to the cathedral and should be exhibited together, and preferably on site. The solution they came up with was to create a space under St John’s Street and partly under the square. During the meeting at Din l-Art Ħelwa this was discussed at length as there was some concern about the safety of the exhibits underground (flooding, humidity), damage due to vibrations during excavation, the expense and carbon footprint of air-conditioning, the precedent of allowing excavation in Valletta, and the possibility of destroying any archaeological remains, probably foundations of buildings in the square.

It must be stated that the foundation has put on record that the proposals require an Environmental Impact Assessment which would detail all these issues and look to the solutions. If for instance there is no double back-up fail-safe plan for flooding (two stand-by generators, draining by gravity, double-insulated concrete walling etc.) then the plan would not go ahead.

Do not doubt for an instant that any one of the foundation’s members would be willing to take responsibility for any loss to, for example, the tapestries. Other issues are perhaps more judgemental. What value do you place on disturbing the foundations of 17th-century buildings under St John’s Square which were destroyed in the war? Can they be disturbed to build the underground exhibition space? Where possible, can they be incorporated or partially incorporated into the new area? We have been assured that the excavation would be carried out under the supervision of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, who would also monitor vibrations to ensure that the cathedral suffers no damage.

Part of the proposal looks at the area on the side of the cathedral bordering Merchants Street – the yard where the remains of knights killed during the siege are buried. This area was only opened to Merchants Street in the 1960s, after the buildings in front of the graves were bombed during the war and the post-war architects decided to leave the area visible to people walking in the street. Here the proposal is to shift the side entrance to the cathedral to this side as opposed to Republic Street, and to cover the courtyard with a glass structure (design yet to be drawn up). There were some quite strong views that this would desecrate the area – a view strongly rebutted by the foundation – and one real benefit was that the visitor flows would be significantly improved by this move.

There were some other issues, but I believe these were the main ones. There was a proposal by an NGO to look at other properties near the cathedral which could provide an alternative exhibition area. Although personally sceptical as to whether such a building could be found which would not require extensive internal restructuring (including the removal of internal walls which brings more controversy), I think the foundation would do well to investigate this particular avenue.

So these are the bones of the argument. Din l-Art Ħelwa has said that there is merit in the proposals. The terms of the EIA must be carefully drawn up, the findings of the EIA discussed publicly, and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, the Church’s heritage commission and the NGOs would act as watchdogs at every stage. Once we know what the impact and solutions are, I believe we will be able to take a considered view of the project. As it stands today I feel there are grounds to say, let’s study this further and not dismiss it out of hand.

One can look to precedents abroad; the glass roof at the British Museum, the underground entrance at the Louvre are obvious ones, but there are many more. The project is quite imaginative and goes some way to resolving the current issues the foundation is facing. We can study the proposals, get the technical reports including the EIA, and at that stage accept, modify or reject the project. This is our view.

Mr Galea is Executive President of Din l-Art Ħelwa.