Sunday Times of Malta, 10 August 2008 –

The recent controversy on the proposed extension to the museum of St John’s Co-Cathedral raises a number of issues on the conduct of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

There is no doubt that the idea behind the proposal is genuine. Anyone in Valletta on any morning, especially when there is a cruise liner or two in port, cannot fail to miss the queues of tourists lining up to visit the co-cathedral. With some 4,000 tourists visiting it daily, there is definitely a need for a reorganisation of the co-cathedral museum as part of one of Valletta’s most important visitor sites. The fact that a large number of works of art are not being exhibited makes the case for the extension even more urgent. As the foundation responsible for St John’s pointed out, storing such artefacts is not the best way to ensure preservation and care.

According to the foundation these artefacts include a unique complete set of 29 tapestries (the largest set of tapestries in the world based on cartoons by Rubens), the exceptional Cappella Ardente, as well as collections of liturgical vestments; requiring approximately 2,000 square metres space to be displayed professionally. An additional 800 square metres is required for storage and utility services.

When such proposals are made, one has to consider whether there are substantial benefits to the community that can be weighed against arguments in favour of leaving everything untouched. This is normal practice in planning regimes all over the world. Without entering into the merits of the details of the proposals, I have no doubt that in this case the benefits to the community are considerable. Dismissing this argument by saying that ‘St John’s Cathedral does not need to enter the frenetic world of competitiveness’ is, to say the least, rash.

I was shocked when an NGO accused the foundation that runs the Co-Cathedral of seeking to tamper with St John’s for financial gain and that the proposal is tantamount to the exploitation of the prime monument in Valletta. Attacking the foundation as if it were some developer seeking to make a profit or an owner seeking to get as much money as possible for his property is insensitive and shallow.

More so, as this criticism of the foundation’s proposals is obviously superficial and amateurish. In such circumstances, NGOs in other countries – such as the UK – would first seek expert professional advice rather than attempt to wade in waters that are clearly beyond their reach.

I understand that the foundation’s original idea for an underground extension met with some resistance from Malta Environment and Planning Authority officials who suggested that it should be above ground. A different above-ground proposal was then made but, as the foundation preferred the underground solution, it presented both options as different Mepa applications for an outline permit.

Contrary to what was implied, there is no intention of carrying out both proposals and the foundation has simply made it possible for the two options to be considered simultaneously via a professional environment impact assessment that could lead to the best solution in the circumstances.

These are the foundation’s arguments, of course, not mine. But I cannot help noticing the stark difference between the professional approach of the foundation and the amateurish approach of some of its detractors.

This is also evident from the decision of one NGO to publish the photo of a nearby palazzo and proposing it as the site of a new museum instead of the proposed extension. This palazzo is private property and no NGO has any right to bandy about photographs of private property and proposing a public use for them. If the owners’ permission was sought, then the NGO is acting as an estate agent. If the NGO had no such permission – as I suspect – then it is playing a dangerous game as the publication of this photograph gives the owners of the property a lot of clout if its purchase – after negotiations – is indeed the right solution.

Even so, it is obvious that this palazzo would have to be completely gutted to be used as a museum, considering the space required for the tapestries and the size of the Cappella Ardente that it would have to house. Most of the Co-Cathedral collections were specifically donated to, or commissioned for, the Co-Cathedral with each Grand Master making a special gift to the Order’s Conventual Church and should not be removed to any other building. Moreover, would guides take tourists across the road, though the Monti, as part of a visit to St John’s?

This is not to say that I think that the proposal for the extension of the Co-Cathedral museum should immediately be given the green light.

I cannot but support fully the stand taken by Din l-Art Helwa which declared that, “with appropriate safeguards and careful attention to any structural or archaeological issues, the proposal to extend the museum by excavating part of St John’s Square has merit and deserves further study.”

It is such statements that distinguish the chaff from the wheat.