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14 October 2004
Heritage Malta: a monumental agency

The paradox of the Maltese archipelago - five islands lying in the Mediterranean 60 miles south of Sicily - is how so much cultural heritage came to be packed into such a small area. In 1980, UNESCO entered on its World Heritage list two Neolithic sites: the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a subterranean burial complex, and Ggantija, one of the megalithic temples. In 1992, this entry was renamed "The Megalithic Temples of Malta" and expanded to include the temples of Hagar Qim, Mnajdra, Tarxien, Ta'Hagrat (also known as Mgarr), and Skorba.
     Faced with an embarrassment of riches - from Neolithic temples to early Christian catacombs to World War II gun emplacements - and growing pressure from development and tourism, the Maltese government reorganized its approach to the past with the Cultural Heritage Act of 2002. Among its provisions, the act established Heritage Malta as the national agency entrusted with the management of national museums and heritage sites and their collections in Malta and Gozo. Heritage Malta began operations January 1, 2003 with its chief executive officer, Antoinette Caruana, and her assistant Suzannah Depasquale.
     The newly founded agency was put in charge of a portfolio of museums and archaeological and other sites. Heritage Malta was also immediately faced with several large projects, such as the moving of its offices from the National Museum of Archaeology to new digs on Valletta's Merchants Street, to a comprehensive upgrade of conservation and facilities at the Tarxien megalithic temple complex.
     A comprehensive plan to preserve the Tarxien site, a group of four megalithic temples, and improve that visitor's center there was undertaken with funding from the Bank of Valletta. Today, busloads of tourists overwhelm the small visitor's center, and the ruins, exposed to the elements, are deteriorating. The project's objectives are simple: preserve the monument for future generations, make it more accessible to a range of audiences, and enhance the surrounding urban residential neighborhood. The expanded visitor center envisaged in the proposal includes more exhibition space, plus a cafeteria, gift shop, activity center for kids, and offices. And then there's the shelter over the temples. The Tarxien proposal contemplates installation of a protective shelter for the main part of the site, covering an area of about 100 by 170 feet. Of course it has to protect the site, but at the same time it must have the fewest possible number of supports so as not to damage the site, impede pathways through it or interfere with visibility.
     Working with other government agencies is critical to the successful outcome of Heritage Malta's efforts. Among the organizations and institutions with which Heritage Malta interfaces is the Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna or Maltese Heritage Trust that administers several historic buildings and sites, including the Neolithic temple at Kordin. There's also the University of Malta's Department of Classics and Archaeology and the OTS (Old Temple Society) Foundation, whose mission is to 'foster international awareness and understanding of Malta's prehistoric heritage.'
     "We are one island in the Mediterranean, which is pretty good for the country," said Caruana, "But there are many good beaches, and the sun shines in other areas as well. Slowly, we are realizing that Malta has much more to offer than sun and sea. Our culture, our religious tourism, can actually play a strong role in promoting our island, and generating revenue, much needed revenue for our economic situation."

Source: Archaeology (12 October 2004)

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