Heritage Malta ended 2021 with a deficit of over €1.4 million, €900,000 more than was originally estimated. It is, of course, only logical and reasonable to expect this since the pandemic severely reduced income from site and museum admissions.

But then why did the agency’s expenditure during the same year increase by €800,000? This year is no different and Heritage Malta estimates show that, despite a projected income increase of €350,000, its expenditure will rise by another €700,000 to a total of almost €18 million, leaving a projected deficit of nearly €800,000, double the original estimates.

Heritage Malta has already been in the limelight over a controversial €120,000 expense for a new logo, leaving many questioning if this was a necessity or merely another extravagant opportunity to showcase the minister. After all, it’s now quite clear that National Heritage Minister Owen Bonnici is more concerned with aesthetics and appearances rather than policy and vision.

As if this wasn’t enough, the agency hit the headlines again following a mysterious agreement it entered into with a private operator to run a catering venture inside the grounds of Palazzo Vilhena, in Mdina, the site of the Museum of Natural History.

A public entity such as Heritage Malta has the obligation to comply with set financial regulations and is bound to follow best practices to guarantee transparency in its operations. But, of course, this doesn’t matter, with the minister happily allowing that such obligations be distorted.

Heritage Malta, acting as a mouthpiece for the minister, defended this decision by stating that this was just an experiment to understand the potential of the site insofar as the catering sector is concerned. Seriously? Palazzo Vilhena is the first building one encounters upon entering Mdina, which by simple logic makes it a prime location.

I have yet to meet an investor who would think twice about investing in such a central site at the entrance of such an important tourist attraction as Mdina. This is why the reason given by the national agency with a ministerial blessing is not convincing at all, much less credible. And this for very simple reasons.

Since 2019, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Heritage Malta had already incurred financial losses of over €1 million. It still does till today. And this despite the government’s subvention, unlike in the case of private and Church-owned museums, which also form an intrinsic part of our national heritage but did not have the luxury of such assistance.

Hence, what has been poorly described as an “experiment” is symptomatic of a crisis to address the agency’s unsustainable financial situation and which is seriously limiting every possible investment for the preservation and protection of our heritage. And with government finances in dire straits, it might well be that Heritage Malta ends up in a situation where it has to let go of the financial bailouts it has benefitted from up to now.

Since 2019, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Heritage Malta had already incurred financial losses of over €1 million- Julie Zahra

Heritage Malta has set a serious precedent by reducing itself to a mere site-renting agency, distorting financial regulations as it deems fit while endangering its very own mission, that of safeguarding and protecting the cultural heritage entrusted to it.

In the increasing frenzy and pressure to generate funds through the agency, the curatorial objection based on the need for the protection of and accessibility to our cultural heritage seems to become more and more uncomfortable and considered a hindrance to the detriment and interest of our same heritage.

If Heritage Malta is consistently choosing to set aside the curatorial aspect in decisions regarding the conservation, protection and accessibility of the sites it manages, it is creating a paradox by itself, endangering the same heritage it is obliged to preserve. Heritage Malta cannot continue to tarnish its credibility. Beyond the frills of its recent branding exercise, it needs to walk the talk. Otherwise, it will be reduced to selling smoke.

The PN believes in a sustainable sector for our national heritage, which includes both state museums as well as privately owned ones and others run by non-governmental entities. We maintain that our heritage is not only an important attraction for tourists but, first and foremost, for Maltese and Gozitans.

This is a sector which needs to modernise itself and look at international practices beyond political partisanship in a way that respects transparency, financial obligations and which does not endanger the heritage being managed. This is why an updated national strategy for our national heritage, developed by experts, including curators, and not decided by the few, or by the minister from the comfort of his office, is overdue.

Our country has unique characteristics which boast more than 8,000 years of history. Indeed, we are proud of a legacy that easily places us at the forefront of world history. We do not only have a duty but an obligation to preserve it for posterity.

Heritage Malta should be fulfilling this role. I have called upon the minister to publish the contractual arrangement between Heritage Malta and the operator in question, if any such arrangement exists, as soon as possible. But the questions raised by the PN remain unanswered.

Julie Zahra is Nationalist Party spokesperson on culture, arts and national heritage.

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