Heritage is more than just property, something that is inherited and passed down from previous generations. Cultural heritage does not consist only of money or property but of culture, values and tradition. It is time to ask: “What are we doing to protect our heritage?”

The concept of cultural heritage has grown to include all evidence of human creativity and expression: photographs, documents, books and manuscripts and other instruments used in trade and crafts in the past. Our cultural heritage implies a shared bond, our belonging to a community. It represents our history and identity or bond to the past, to our present and the future.

Worryingly, there is increasing evidence that we do not sufficiently care for our cultural heritage. Recently, an iconic HMV sign above the doorway of D’Amato Records, in Valletta was smashed by a heavy vehicle. Earlier, a British-era red phone box was hit and demolished by a reversing truck in Valletta.

Some months ago, two rare gold medals were stolen from the Maritime Museum and sustained “irreversible damage”. Three vases and a clock costing over €13,000 also went missing from the Grand Master’s palace earlier this year.

Even the agriculture minister was accused of keeping a historical artifact in his garden.

The list of neglected heritage architectural sites and monuments is depressing. The Addolorata Cemetery, a rare gem of 19th century Neo-Gothic architecture in Malta, suffers from a severe lack of maintenance, with walking paths full of rubble posing a risk to those using them. The same fate is afflicting San Anton Gardens, which needs intensive maintenance to restore its former beauty.

The best means to protect cultural heritage at risk is to ensure adequate attention in advance planning is given to identifying heritage attributes, the risk to these attributes and appropriate response measures. Those responsible for the upkeep of our cultural heritage must work with the local community, private owners of cultural property, local councils and planners to resolve conflicts and develop conservation strategies that address local needs, abilities and resources.

Heritage Malta, the custodian of our publicly owned cultural sites, must set an example by adopting best practices in preserving our cultural heritage. It is not doing enough to fulfil this obligation.

Maintenance programmes for all monuments, archaeological sites and cultural landscapes must be conceived in terms of the daily causes of deterioration, that is, visitor and occupant use and the impact of weather conditions.

The involvement of qualified conservation professionals is critical to restoring damaged buildings and monuments.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency to believe that recovering distressed historical architectural and archaeological sites is either impossible or too expensive. More must also be done to ensure that private owners of listed cultural items maintain their property in good condition through structural surveys and by implementing regular maintenance and repair schedules and risk assessment studies.

If owners of property of cultural interest cannot be traced or are unwilling to undertake maintenance work, the authorities should have the right to undertake the work, at the owners’ expense, or purchase the property.

Heritage Malta, as the authority responsible for the upkeep of our architectural heritage, must be accountable for disaster prevention and mitigation. It must employ trained staff to produce and maintain records and ensure that maintenance work on national cultural sites is done regularly.

Education must also be promoted to the public at different levels through informed media coverage and in the school systems as part of the curriculum.

Ultimately, we all have a role to play in preserving our cultural heritage.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us