The Malta Independent 12 July 2020, Sunday

Restoring our national heritage

Owen Bonnici Friday, 10 January 2020, 09:40 Last update: about 7 months ago

Various entities under the Ministry for Justice, Culture and Local Government have been for the past years conserving and restoring our national cultural heritage, focusing on the protection and care of artworks, architecture, archaeology, and museum collections.

Our Heritage Malta’s Conservation Division is entrusted with the overall responsibility of providing preventive conservation, conservation-restoration services and scientific diagnostic services to the various museums and sites within the remit of Heritage Malta. This division also cooperates with other entities that are involved in conservation-restoration activity.

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The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage is responsible for all scientific investigation regarding cultural assets, both terrestrial and underwater and the role of evaluating art objects, objects of cultural value and collections of such items.

The Restoration Directorate is responsible for the implementation and execution of restoration, rehabilitation and conservation interventions on historical buildings, which are also primarily public property. The Restoration Directorate also offers specialized assistance to various public entities and institutions, including ministries, local councils, departments, agencies and non-governmental organizations.

The above three entities are fully committed to safeguard, restore, regenerate and preserve our national cultural heritage – which is one of the priorities of the ministry. We are practically restoring our national pride, our cultural inheritance.

Over the past days, I visited two of the various sites that are being restored by the Restoration Directorate. Under the supervision of the professional team employed with this directorate, we are giving a new lease of life to the Żejtun Parish Church and the Church of the Virgin of Mercy in Qrendi.

Just two of the sites that are currently undergoing preservation.

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Works are being carried out on the Virgin of Mercy Church in Qrendi, a historic church dating back to the 1650s. Following the start of works in March 2019 by the Restoration Directorate, the restoration will be completed by the beginning of 2021.

Through such interventions, we will ensure that such historical gems are safeguarded and made available for future generations, whilst also working towards strengthening our local cultural product. I praise the work carried out by the Restoration Directorate, employing skilled techniques in restoring works on various historical sites and locations for the further preservation of our local heritage.

Restoration is meticulous.

Works on the church’s external building fabric proceeded at a steady pace.  In fact, to date the restoration of the external fabric of the dome, the bell-cot and that of other structures at roof level have been completed. The North East façade of the church has also been restored. These works include: the overall cleaning of the stone fabric from dirt and other deposits accumulated through the years; the retention and consolidation (through injection of detached sections) of the existing traditional deffun roofing screed covering the dome and the church roof; the limited localised replacement of mechanically damaged or extensively deteriorated stone blocks; the use of the plastic repair technique to repair stone blocks exhibiting deterioration; the restoration of timber window apertures on the North Eastern façade; the cleaning of water ducts and the installation of terracotta downpipes to prevent further water penetration into the church.

Following the mounting of scaffolding both along the South East/South West external facades as well as the mounting of scaffolding within the church interior, preliminary investigation and restoration works are proceeding concurrently in these areas. Most of the restoration interventions to be executed on the aforementioned external facades will be similar to those already executed to date. However, the stone fabric of the external buttress, thought to have been built at a second stage in the early 18th century to counteract local structural movement, exhibits delamination and will necessitate pinning and consolidation of the delaminated sections. Actual works on the church interior have to date seen the removal of the thick cement plaster which covered considerable areas of internal walls. Scientific investigations are also being carried out on the altar reredos, investigations that are giving interesting results attesting to the fact that the altar reredos and dome were given a polychrome treatment.

Following closure of this investigation stage, a specific restoration methodology for this particular area will be drawn up and implemented.

Works are estimated to reach an investment of €150,000. However, apart from the monetary investment, we are also investing in our heritage, preserving it for our future generations.

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The Restoration Directorate has also completed the 2nd phase of restoration works on the Żejtun Parish Church, consisting of the north-facing façade. The works were concluded in six months.

The second phase saw to the intervention of works on 650 square metres, with an investment of €150,000. This came after the completion of the first phase, which was the restoration of the south façade – 890 square metres – which was completed in 2018.

The Restoration Directorate currently has around 80 projects under its helm, which all are in various stages of development. Such commitment shows the dedication of safeguarding and strengthening our local heritage. Our strategy is to ensure that such places are more available and more accessible to our public, and through careful restoration interventions, we are also securing this for posterity.

This façade of the church was mostly characterised by extensive areas of biological growth. It is the best-preserved façade, being the least to suffer from the wetting and drying cycles.

Restoration and conservation work included the removal of cement-based plaster from the façade. The stone was cleaned with distilled water and plastic repaired. Stones found to be structurally unsound, were replaced. Architecture details which have been lost and could be easily reproduced from other existing evidence have been replaced by new sculptured stone or, when possible, by plastic repair. The stone surface was cleaned with nylon brushes from superficial deposits, staining and biological growth. The black crust was cleaned and a lime wash was given to obtain a consistent appearance. Cracks were repointed using lime-based mortars, and even weak mortar joints were raked off and repointed.

The next phase of the project will see works on the main façade and belfries, covering 1,600 square metres, with an estimate investment of €355,000. The works are expected to start in June of this year and will take around 12 months.

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The Restoration Directorate is currently involved in other major projects under the ERDF 2014-2020 funding Programme, including the Malta International Contemporary Art Space (MICAS) in Floriana; and the Regeneration of the Grand Master’s Palace, the Rehabilitation of the Old Abattoir into the Valletta Design Cluster in Valletta, and the Rehabilitation of the Notarial Archives, all in Valletta.

The list also includes various wayside chapels, major historical buildings, niches, statues, and practically all that we inherited from our ancestors, making our islands a rich cultural haven.

This Ministry is committed to continue with these ongoing works to give back to the island a preserved, regenerated and safeguarded cultural patrimony.

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