The Malta Independent 24 October 2021, Sunday

A Lifelong dedication to cultural heritage

Malta Independent Sunday, 17 July 2005, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

When Judge Maurice Caruana Curran created Din l-Art Helwa on 9 July 1965, a gossip magazine described it as “one of these associations that will die in three weeks”. But – and he says it with a half-proud, half-pleased smile – “40 years later, we are still here!”

Indeed, the non-governmental organisation is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month and this special year also saw truly international recognition of Judge Caruana Curran’s dedication to preserving Malta’s heritage. On 24 June, he received the Europa Nostra Cultural Heritage Award for his lifetime contribution to cultural heritage. And last Thursday – on France’s national day – he was made “Officier des Arts et des Lettres” – an honorary French decoration which awards those who have contributed to the influence of arts and literature in France and around the world – by the French Ambassador to Malta. Judge Caruana Curran is regarded as the pioneer and pillar of the national conservation movement and this is for good reason.

“I started everything almost on my own, and I had to start from scratch because everything was still to be done,” he says. Sitting in the conference room of the Din l-Art Helwa headquarters – a beautifully restored 17th century casa nobile – in Valletta, Judge Caruana Curran still vividly remembers the first years of work to create the association and begin building up awareness of the necessity to protect the Maltese heritage and environment. “I used to come here to work by myself; there were only two ladies who helped me. They were actually the first volunteers of Din l-Art Helwa,” he remembers. Judge Caruana Curran likes to insist on the fact that the driving force behind his commitment to cultural heritage has always been his great love for his country, its culture, its arts, its history and its natural beauty.

In the early 1960s, after the British left the island, Malta’s image started to change dramatically with many buildings being constructed along the coastline, which destroyed its original appearance. “I felt a sense of outrage and a sense of helplessness and I also felt the great need to do something about it,” he says. “All this is unique to us,” he pointed out, “and we have to work to preserve it.”

The 1964 Independence Constitution and its section 9, which obliges the State “to safeguard the historic and natural patrimony of the nation” was the legal background to the creation of Din l-Art Helwa.

The society would help the government to preserve Malta’s cultural and environmental heritage and it would also stop the government from granting permission for “wrong development” and educate and stimulate awareness in the Maltese people. “But first of all we had to find a name for our NGO and we struggled, it took us one year to find it!” he explains. “The name couldn’t be in English, like Malta Heritage Trust, and it couldn’t be too Italian either (‘Malta Nostra’ would not do), we had to find something that was really Maltese. One afternoon, while at work in my study, I heard the Maltese national anthem on the radio and one phrase in its opening line rang like a bell: 'Din l-Art Helwa’ – ‘This Fair Land'. We couldn’t find a better name!”

“Malta must get a grip on itself”

Since its foundation, Din l-Art Helwa has restored more than 30 cultural and historical sites, among which are the Hal Millieri Chapel of the Annunciation and Bir Miftuh church near the airport (these were the first two sites entrusted to the society), Wignacourt Tower in St Paul’s Bay, the Msida Bastion Garden of Rest (for which Din l-Art Helwa was awarded the Europa Nostra Silver Medal in 2002) and the recently restored Santa Marija Tower in Comino. The renovation of Torri Mamo, near Marsascala, is one of the greatest achievements of Judge Caruana Curran and, more importantly, it is a good example of Din l-Art Helwa’s philosophy: “the challenge is not just to restore a place but also to find a use for it” Judge Caruana Curran explains. Because “to keep buildings alive, we have to use them,” he insists. And this is what was done with Torri Mamo which, at the moment, is hosting a Maltese fishing heritage exhibition.

Although the situation has improved a lot in 40 years, Judge Caruana Curran believes that there are still a lot of things to be done, especially concerning the new buildings that keep on blighting the Maltese coast and villages. “It is heartening to see that many other restoration projects are being undertaken nationally,” he says, “but disappointing to see the demolition of much of our rich vernacular architecture in the towns and villages which is to be lost forever, as well as the continual onslaught by development on our coastline and countryside.” Indeed, for Judge Caruana Curran, aesthetics is one the biggest challenges now. “We are losing the aesthetics of traditional villages nowadays and it’s a pity,” he complains. And it is the Maltese themselves who are to blame. “The Maltese are mad about building, there is too much speculation,” he says. “Malta must get a grip on itself and get some self-control,” he urges.

A lot of historical sites are still abandoned, such as Fort Saint Elmo. “Part of it is falling to pieces. We are pushing to get the government to do something about it and, of course, we would help restore it, but for that we need money,” he explains.

However, Judge Caruana Curran admits that in 40 years, awareness has grown both in the government and in the population; not only on the issue of heritage conservation but also concerning the problem of new buildings. And he has high hopes – especially since the government enacted the Heritage Act in 2001 and Malta entered the European Union in 2004 – that Din l-Art Helwa will gain even more recognition and be able to save more sites from destruction. The Europa Nostra award has actually already had positive repercussions: “My name has spread all over Malta and this definitely helps to find sponsors and funds, even if I am retired now,” he says.

Judge Caruana Curran did, indeed, relinquish the Presidency of Din l-Art Helwa in 1999, after 33 years in charge, but is still the Founder President of the association. The council still benefits from his help and advice and he has no intention of bringing to an end his work to protect cultural heritage. Indeed, when asked if he could now give it all up, his answer was quick and definite: “Never!”

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