Times of Malta, 11 August 2008 – Editorial

St John’s Co-Cathedral houses Malta’s finest art treasures, and its splendour and historical importance test the limits of the lexicon. Words like lavish, opulent, striking and significant fall short of the mark. Not even Napoleon’s depredations in 1798 have dimmed its importance.

It, therefore, behoves the foundation which has been entrusted with its care to tread carefully before it tampers in any way with the co-cathedral’s interior or its exterior, including any of its adjacent historical buildings or subterranean structures.

St John’s Co-Cathedral is Malta’s prime cultural tourism attraction. It draws in around 450,000 visitors a year. On peak days as many as 4,000 tourists pass through the co-cathedral’s doors. In order to ease the congestion of visitors inside the co-cathedral – and thus to contribute directly to its conservation – the foundation has submitted two alternative outline applications for the extension of its currently wholly inadequate museum.

One option is for the construction of a three-storey building in the courtyard running along Merchants Street to provide additional space, including a canteen at roof level. The second option is to extend the co-cathedral’s museum by excavating chambers underneath St John’s Street and connecting them to existing subterranean water reservoirs. In the foundation’s view, in the light of research already carried out, the underground option would not cause damage to any remains of historical significance, and the cisterns in front of the co-cathedral would not be destroyed but would instead be cleaned and opened to visitors as part of the new museum.

The over-riding objective of the foundation’s proposals is to ensure the preservation and conservation of the co-cathedral are safeguarded and that the priceless collection of artefacts currently mostly in storage, including the largest collection of Rubens-designed Flemish tapestries in the world, are displayed properly and safely as befits such artistic and historic treasures. Most importantly, the foundation has itself proposed that the two possible ways forward should be subjected to an independent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to ensure that whichever option is chosen will not pose any potential or real risks to the co-cathedral or any of the historical adjacent buildings.

As so often in Malta, condemnation has been heaped on the proposals without the benefit of a comprehensive, independent technical assessment which an EIA would provide. “My mind is made up. Please don’t confuse me with the facts” seems all too often to inform our public discourse. The fact of the matter is that St John’s Co-Cathedral is a victim of its own success and the museum, consisting of a number of restricted rooms built in the 1960s is totally inadequate to today’s needs both in quality of presentation as well as spatially. The outstanding and unique collections of silver, paintings, sacred vestments, relics and reliquaries, sculptures and tapestries should, it is rightly argued, be housed together in their entirety.

The Foundation’s proposals for doing so clearly have merit, not least the imaginative option of building an underground extension to the museum if, with appropriate safeguards and careful attention to any structural or archaeological features, it proves feasible to do so.

It would be wrong to condemn either option until the EIA has been completed and all the facts on which to base a judg-ment are available to us.