The Malta Independent 10 April 2020, Friday

Herrera to introduce submarine tours as an initiative to savour Malta’s maritime heritage

Karl Azzopardi Monday, 27 January 2020, 09:49 Last update: about 3 months ago

The newly appointed Minister for the National Heritage, the Arts and Local Government Jose Herrera will be realising a dream he had during his time as Parliamentary Secretary for Culture six years ago, through the introduction of maritime archaeology submarine tours. During an interview with Karl Azzopardi, Minister Herrera gave an insight into his plans for Malta’s national heritage, the arts and local government. While planning to abide by the new Cabinet’s calls for continuity by following in his predecessor’s footsteps, Herrera still has his own blueprint of what his ministry should represent and deliver in the coming years.

Six years have passed since his time as Parliamentary Secretary for Culture and Local Government, Minister Jose Herrera has found himself heading the Ministry of National Heritage, Arts and Local Government after the recent cabinet reshuffle. Herrera appears to be content with Prime Minister’s Robert Abela’s decision as “from this ministry’s portfolio and the entities that have been assigned to it, it seems that the Prime Minister is prioritising the cultural aspect and the heritage of our country.”

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But what exactly does Herrera intend to do as the head of this ministry?

National Heritage

“I was pleased to note that in the past six years that I have been absent from this ministry, the principle entities have been strengthened and I was impressed with the amount of work that is being done,” Herrera stated enthusiastically.

He used Heritage Malta as an example, saying that it has experienced a shift in the way it tackles heritage and its preservation. Rather than simply setting up a site for people to visit, more investments have been made to bring heritage closer to the people.

This is something he intends to build upon, especially with national libraries and archives as part of this ministry’s portfolio.

“It is part of our heritage. We have an impeccable history that stretches across a long period of time … There is a lot of investment being made in this sector wherein we are digitising them (the archives) as we need to make them more accessible to the public, so that more studies can be made on our history.”

Herrera pointed out that Malta has a lot of heritage per square meter compared to other countries but most of it is lost as there is no proper record of artefacts. So, he will work on creating an archive which will also be digitised and put online.  

“Culture is what helps tourism. Sure, we have beaches and nightlife but we are not Ibiza. We have more to offer due to our heritage and people come here for that.”

One profitable sector which he feels requires more attention is maritime archaeology. Herrera explained that he will be putting more focus on the Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit of Heritage Malta, headed by Prof. Timmy Gambin.

With underwater artefacts dating back to the Punic and Roman times, Malta has one of the best maritime archaeological areas in the world and it can end up having a strong effect on tourism, Herrera said.

“Imagine taking people in small submarines – as we are going to start doing – to see the oldest galley from Phoenician times which is still very much intact,” he said.

The ministry has already been in contact with a small submarine driver who is being given the go ahead to apply for a license and start providing such tours. Further discussions on the topic are underway and a conservation order for maritime artefacts has been put into action by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage.

In addition to this, he plans to have Heritage Malta form part of the Comino committee in order to protect and restore the archaeological sites that exist on the island.

Herrera said that he is fascinated with the patrimonial richness of the Maltese Islands which is a blessing to our country.

However, the recent archaeological discoveries that caused the works at the highly disputed Central Link project to stop immediately highlight issues for development. When questioned about his opinion on the situation, he said that “Malta is extremely unique when it comes to archaeology and history – wherever you dig, you find.”

“There are two types of remains,” Herrera explained. “Some are so important that even if you are building a hospital you have to stop the work, such as a Neolithic Temple or Roman Villa. But there are remains that are of secondary importance,” like agricultural heritage which is quite common.

In his opinion, the way forward is to have licensed professionals evaluate the site and grade it. “If it is of secondary importance, it doesn’t mean you destroy it but you find ways of preserving it and mitigating damage to it. Sometimes you take pictures, study it and rebury it for future generations while other times it is exposed to the public.”

Herrera was also asked about the Maltese language.

“We have also been given the duty to protect and preserve the Maltese language which is part of our heritage. It is what makes us Maltese,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are getting a lot of ‘pigeon English’ in the way we speak and I do not agree with the stand of adopting such methods without making an effort to use words from the Anglosaxon language.”

Herrera believes that this is something which needs to be studied in order develop an application that will spellcheck and correct Maltese words. “This is something that can be found in the budget,” his spokesperson explained, “and while reading remains the most effective way of understanding the language, it is also important that there be mechanisms which will aid people in using it correctly.”

The minister also praised the decision taken by his predecessor – Minister Owen Bonnici – and Heritage Malta to purchase patrimony in order to protect it, restore it and give it back to the public. “We have funds from the Individuals Investors Program (IIP) and we are using such funds to invest in heritage. I will push this idea forward as certain things need to be purchased or they will be lost.”

All the initiatives mentioned here will form part of the culture policy for 2021-2025 which will not only determine the future of Malta’s heritage but also of the arts, he said.

Arts

One of the main principles of the policy will relate to the funding programme, meaning the way funds are distributed.

Herrera explained that nowadays artists need to be given full freedom of expression so funding needs to be more flexible as they cannot be restricted to a specific amount of lots. For this reason, he plans on adopting a less rigid funding structure to allow artists to push boundaries rather than try to adapt to particular existent schemes.

“It is true that there have been rigid criteria on what is being valued as art and what isn’t and I believe that it needs to become more flexible so that the artist can present whatever project they want.”

On top of this, his ministry will continue working on the Malta International Contemporary Arts Space (MICAS) and identify a suitable site for the building of a National Concert Hall.

Herrera also spoke about globalisation and said that international cultural cooperation is high on his agenda.

“Art is a form of diplomacy, it is a form of link between other cultures and societies. This is something we refer to as ‘soft diplomacy’,” he said while highlighting the importance of looking at art from a global and international lens. With almost €2.5 million of funds already being distributed among artists and with further discussions underway on how to make them more flexible and accessible, he wants to make sure that the arts are spread as wide as possible.

For Herrera, “a person without culture and art is not a human being but an animal. One’s creativity, background and knowledge is what makes human beings what they are, so, it is important to encourage these sectors.”

On this note, he will be encouraging cultural NGOs and communities to develop further their capacity as contributors in local, social and cultural well-being and see how traditional and new cultural communities can be empowered to act as catalysts in cultural development. 

Local Government

Herrera said that he believes in the need for the participation of local governments in environment and culture.

He explained that during his time as Parliamentary Secretary, he was amused to discover that the European Committee of Regions had set up to vet applications for cultural restoration works done at a local level and get local governments involved.

However, when asked if he thinks that local governments should have a veto when it comes to local planning authorities, he did not seem convinced.

“In certain larger countries the regulatory authorities are, more often than not, the remit of the local council or to the region council. In Malta, we are too small logistically to rely on applications that every local government decides on.”

From a patrimony point of view, he explained that it is the superintendent who should have the right to protect the heritage – “if a medieval house is to be demolished and replaced with flats I think that the superintendent should have enough power to prevent this.”

“When it comes to local governments, which have been chosen and are trusted by the local population, I do not think it is fair that their say in planning applications is at a normal objector level. They should have a wider say, but to give them a right of veto in planning of their area would paralyse the country,” he said.

“The building policy is not invested in on a local or regional level but on a national level. You will create different standards and confusion to have policies on a local and regional level so it is not my political view to have sixty-nine different policies.”

Having said this, Herrera stated that he is not against regional councils having a larger say on planning applications and it is on his cards to make better use of them – “I would like to give more importance to the regions. I think the regionalisation process should make a step forward. Some projects make more sense on a regional level because of factors of scale. For example, building a heritage park would not have to go through two or three local governments but through the regional council.”

Herrera also plans to use regional councils as an outlet to listen to and address local governments with the aims of creating a policy that is not ‘one size fits all’.

He said that local governments are the fourth pillar of democracy following the legislature, executive and judiciary, yet he feels that their remit has been circumvented and their most prominent weakness is fiscal autonomy.

“I am not saying that they should be completely autonomous as they are still in their infant stage. However, fiscal autonomy is one of the areas that the charter issued by the Committee of the Regions in Strasburg claimed to be one of our lasting weaknesses when it comes to local governments.”

He said that there are methods available such as ‘parallel taxation’ which he will be considering as it does not affect the government’s surplus or funds.

 

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