The Malta Independent 17 July 2024, Wednesday
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A re-focussing on heritage needed

Julie Zahra Sunday, 16 June 2024, 08:05 Last update: about 2 months ago

The first Malta Biennale came to a close last month, and unfortunately left a bitter taste in the artistic and cultural sector. Reportedly, the lavish event which spanned numerous locations and three months did not manage to attract the crowds it meant to and was not well received by the international art-specialised press either.

Certainly, this coming short was not due to lack of funding, as the event was allocated no less than €2.4 million. However, even though no expense was spared, it was criticised for lack of transparency, a dubious research process that led to the design of the actual event, and a general lack of imagination and originality.

What boggled the minds most though was the actual organisation behind the Biennale, Heritage Malta which was seen as going out of remit with the grand event. We know that in Malta public entities love to build their own empires with ample overlap resulting in unsavoury turf-wars. But when we have an Arts Council, a Valletta Cultural Agency, a museum of Fine Arts, a Centre for Creativity and the new kid on the block MICAS, why did Heritage Malta organise the Biennale?

Was it furnished with the necessary resources, both in terms of expertise as well as logistical, to organise this event? What was the motivation behind it taking on the gargantuan project? And rather poignantly, was it a sound financial decision?

From the agency’s official figures, it transpires that while no expense was spared on the Biennale, maintenance and upkeep for its museums and heritage sites was ring-fenced to €1.7million from the €26 million that were allocated to it from the national purse.

I feel this was an episode of gross misplacement of priorities for Heritage Malta which is tasked with the protection, and promotion of heritage. Sadly, a tour of certain museums and sites under the agency’s responsibility is heart wrenching. Are the fantastic curators and technical staff on the ground being given the rights tools and environment to operate at the best of their capabilities? Are they being consulted on what is truly needed for them to manage modern 21st Century sites that keep visitors milling in. We know how Museums around the world have managed to attract new crowds by shifting the way they convey information to more interactive and captivating methods. Sadly, I see that this is not the case with many museums in Malta, which appear to still be stuck in the past. In fact, some sites are identical to what I remember them to be like when I visited them many moons ago with my school mates.

I read in the news that Heritage Malta was planning to audit its security on its sites, following the ridiculous news that artefacts had been stolen from the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta and the Maritime Museum in Birgu. So, did we need to wait for a theft to take place for us to start thinking about this? Did we need to wait for €400,000 in gold coins, and another €13,000 in other assorted artefacts to go missing to take security seriously?

Not to mention artefacts which are either donated on loaned to the state under the responsibility of Heritage Malta, from private collections. If something had to happen to such artefacts, Malta would have some serious reputational and possibly diplomatic consequences to face, which everyone will appreciate would be extremely embarrassing.

I really hope this issue is taken seriously, and Heritage Malta puts our collective minds at rest that our heritage, our identity, the very objects that have built our country and that make us who we are, are in good hands! 

Which brings me to the obvious lack of sustainability in the way Heritage Malta is run. It is obvious, that the agency is not sustainable and depends almost completely on the public coffers for its lifeline. This may be a respectable model given the arguments above, but it also burdens it with a great responsibility towards the taxpayer.

Heritage Malta needs to do some serious soul searching, and truly understand what it was set up for. It must refocus its energies to protecting and promoting the sites and artefacts within its responsibility, rather than going on a tangent with vanity projects or renting sites out for commercial purposes like private concerts and weddings.

We can do a lot better to make out of our sites the amazing experiences they can be, contributing directly to the value-added experience our country has to offer.

 

Julie Zahra is the Opposition’s Shadow Minister for Cultural Heritage, Arts, and Culture

 

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