In May 2019, then-prime minister Joseph Muscat announced plans for a purpose-built, technologically better equipped National Archives on the site of an enlarged National Park at Ta’ Qali.
Days later, a DOI press release announced “a historic day for our country”.
It featured ministers Evarist Bartolo and Ian Borg, accompanied by parliamentary secretary Chris Agius, sporting smiles of satisfaction as they presided over an agreement between the Lands Department and the National Archives that was purported to transfer land for “the construction of an appropriate building for our country’s National Archives”.
“For the first time ever,” declared Bartolo, “there will be a building [that] catered for the National Archives.”
Boasting this “step about the future” that illustrated the government’s “willingness… to use public land for the benefit of Malta”, he emphasised the blindingly obvious: that “our country’s identity is formed by the memory of our historical experiences across the centuries and our blending with other people and countries”.
Not to be outdone, Borg trumpeted the “historic step towards the conservation of the rich history and memory of our country”. The National Archives was to “be given an opportunity to have appropriate facilities for the conservation of their precious documents”.
Waxing lyrical he proclaimed: “This is another promise that will be implemented, another result of work that looks at our country’s needs, the results of a government that invests in every resource and every piece of heritage, with the commitment of administering public land in the interests of the people. Malta deserves the best, the people deserve the best and we are committed to continue looking ahead towards more such important steps.”
ONE News gave prominence to “the historic agreement” that would enable the “National Archives to construct a fitting building for the preservation of important documents”.
Later in October, ONE reminded us of the projected new Malta Archives that would not only “store hundreds of thousands of documents, photographs, audio and visual [recordings], a rich source regarding Maltese identity, but also make them available to the public”.
The nation’s documented history is seriously endangered- Joseph Pirotta
The Budget speech for 2020 featured then finance minister Edward Scicluna promising a new National Archives that would enable us “to preserve our country’s cultural legacy to enable it to be enjoyed and studied by the Maltese people and by others”.
Three-and-a-half-years from the initial announcement, not only has the government not fulfilled its promise – it has surreptitiously gone back on it. Without any ministerial fanfare, not only have no funds been made available but the land earmarked for the new National Archives was repossessed by the government while the National Archives Department continued to be billed for its rent.
It is crystal clear that the ministerial circus that announced the building of a new National Archives was no more than a shabby propaganda exercise meant to convey the impression that this government actually gives a fig about the preservation of the national memory and/or the preservation, study and diffusion of our nation’s history.
Week after week we are regaled with examples of public money being wasted on publicity stunts, glitz and ephemeral spectacle meant to impress the gullible. All are bereft of any tangible cultural gain. In the meantime, the nation’s documented history is seriously endangered despite the dedicated efforts of our hard-working archivists working in cramped premises bursting at the seams.
The government’s sole interest is to take advantage of the public’s widespread indifference to the importance of protecting the history of our social, cultural and political development while spuriously claiming an interest in preserving the written, visual and oral sources of our national development.
I appeal for an immediate change of attitude in an effort to end the real damage that the government’s current policy is causing to the preservation of the collective memory.
Prof. Joseph Pirotta is a historian and a former head of the University of Malta’s Department of International Relations.