The Malta Independent 18 October 2021, Monday

The Fine Arts Museum saga comes full circle

Malta Independent Sunday, 17 November 2013, 09:45 Last update: about 8 years ago

The story we broke last Sunday – that the relocation of the National Museum of Fine Arts from South Street to the Auberge d’Italie had been stopped – caused quite a ripple, mainly shock at a decision seen to be against the interests of arts and culture in general.

After some days’ silence, the Minister of Tourism and the Parliamentary Secretary for Arts issued a joint statement in which they said they would be looking for a new site for the museum.

Since then, it seems, the situation has changed drastically: what they are now looking at is a new site for the ministry and MTA, and the day may not have been lost for the relocation of the museum to the Auberge to take place as planned.

What follows is the result of feedback from people who were involved in the plans for relocation prior to the election and from a long interview, followed by a site visit by Minister Karmenu Vella on Thursday.

The Auberge d’Italie is the Cinderella of ministries. In front of it, the Foreign Ministry has been restored, and of course the Auberge de Castille has been splendidly restored (the last part, on St Paul’s Street is still being done).

In contrast, the Auberge d’Italie is grimy on the outside, and worse inside. Some roofs leak when it rains and the rooms are too big to be offices. They are quite clearly better suited to be rooms of a museum, after they are restored.

The two sides blame each other for the delays in the preparation of the relocation plan. The previous team claim MTA ‘dragged its feet’ on the plans but Mr Vella says, documents in hand, that the Design Report was only concluded in February 2013, less than a month before the election. This report by the architects planned where desks could be placed in the three buildings where the ministry and MTA were to be relocated to.

Even so, claims Mr Vella, all the desks, on paper, did not include all employees of the ministry and MTA. At present, the two have a complement of 170 staff and there are units working in Castille and the registry is somewhere else. The complement may be increased to around 200.

Then a closer look at the plan and a site visit showed something else – the ministry and MTA employees were going to be relocated to rooms without windows and in many cases in rooms at basement level without light and air.

Those who visit the museum in South Street know that one side of the building does have windows, on Old Mint Street, but the other side gets air only from the doors. Furthermore, the plans were for four employees working in close quarters in each room.

The previous administration’s plans also regarded Casa Scaglia, which was erroneously described as a palazzo. I toured it: it is not the palazzo next door to the former Admiralty House, but round the corner in M.A. Vassalli Street (in front of the post box in the middle). It consists of two rooms at ground level, but then the next two levels are taken up, as in many Valletta buildings, by private residences (which abut on the small courtyard of the building).

In last year’s budget there was a line item for the restoration of this building in preparation for the relocation of the ministry. Accordingly, the upstairs storeys have been restored but the ministry officials who came on this site visit with me, were quite scathing about clustering employees four to a rather small room, with no privacy at all, and especially about an intermediate floor which has been created and which raises privacy issues even more.

The building is a sprawling one, with doors opening on to the private residences’ common areas, narrow corridors and hidden rooms (but with a splendid view).

Next we went to the museum itself (to the surprise of the employees there). Downstairs we found a man preparing the basement for the ZiguZajg invasion by children. A door was open and we, inquisitive, found that the reserve collection of the museum, the patrimony and heritage of Malta, is kept in a damp cellar with possible rain infiltration.

All around the courtyard are the rooms where the plans were for people to be working there, in dark cubby holes with no air and light.

The third building in the relocation plan is a dark, abandoned house down Old Mint Street. Its past history is as dark as its façade, and no one seems to have a clear idea how it came to be in government hands. It’s in a dangerous state but the rooms are big and could be splendid once restored.

Even so, the heavy restoration needed would probably call for the closing down of the museum next door due to the amount of dust that would be created.

Given the amount of present employees at the ministry and MTA, a suggestion was made to add two extra storeys at the back of this building in 8 Old Mint Street but a preliminary check with the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage showed there would be definite opposition to add two storeys to Valletta’s skyline.

In a report drawn up in May by an MTA official, tabled yesterday by Minister Vella in Parliament, it was said: “No scientific study has been made to determine if the space in these three buildings is sufficient to accommodate the complement of the ministry and MTA.”

On its part, it would seem that Heritage Malta (HM) was banking a lot on the relocation. Not only would more paintings by Malta’s artists of the past find exposure in the new location, but HM also planned to open a cafeteria instead of La Veneziana, which forms part of the Auberge.

HM also planned to open up what used to be the original door to the building, in the new Pjazza de Valette (where bricks cover the old doorway) though this would require the construction of a staircase. In the words of people from the former administration, such an arts museum would provide a link between the new space created by the Piano project for City Gate, the new Parliament and the former Opera House and upper Merchants Street.

Their view – that the Auberge d’Italie should be a museum and nothing else – seem to have been taken on by the new administration after this week of controversies.

What remains, now, is to find an alternative site for the ministry and MTA. Ironically, it was Francis Zammit Dimech, who, as minister, had brought the ministry (from Palazzo Spinola) and MTA (from Floriana) to be together at the Auberge d’Italie. It does not seem that the government intends to split them apart. But finding office space for near 200 employees has proved to be tricky.

Mr Vella said he has looked and asked to no avail so far, looking over properties such as Fort St Elmo (taken over by HM and the War Museum, he was told), the HSBC building in front of the Borza (taken over by Minister Konrad Mizzi), etc. He drew the line when he was offered a school in Gzira. He also was ready to take over the former Air Malta building near the airport but was told the government has plans for it. He sighed openly for a Skyparks 2 where all ministries could be housed in an open plan, modern environment. The search goes on: the last place to be mentioned was the former Dockyard school.

It will probably be a long search and even longer (and costlier) to implement.

Mr Vella still has a question to raise: last year the Museum of Fine Arts saw 30,000 visitors. Even if it increases this to 60,000 as a result of relocation, would this justify the expenditure of the move?


Tate talks

Meanwhile, both under the former administration and under the new one, talks have continued with the Tate Museum regarding a Museum of Contemporary Arts which is to be located at the old Power Station at the bottom of Crucifix Hill in Floriana, practically next door to the Cruise Liner Terminal.

This was admitted in Parliament yesterday by Parliamentary Secretary Jose Herrera, though he did not name Tate by name.

  • don't miss