(Adds statement from St John's Co-Cathedral Foundation)
A planning authority decision for the extension and refurbishment of the St John's Co-Cathedral museum has been suspended after the International Council on Monuments and Sites expressed concerns about the project.
The St John’s Cathedral Foundation applied to expand its museum onto the Great Siege cemetery, which is dominated by the communal grave where the remains of the heroes of the Great Siege are buried.
The aim was to use the hall to exhibit all the Flemish tapestries together.
The proposed project had been met with disapproval from Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar which said that while the proposed Caravaggio Centre and Cappella Ardente hall were well-conceived, blocking the view of the cathedral by a massive new structure on Merchants’ Street was far from acceptable.
FAA argued that creating exhibition space could neither be considered restoration nor rehabilitation of the building and the hall changed the area from a cemetery for the heroes who fell to defend Malta and Europe, into a lobby where a museum made money from the sale of tickets and gifts.
The authority's heritage advisory committee said its website that it had not been given sufficient information as to the necessity for the tapestries to be hung all together and exhibited in one specific place other than in the place for where they were intended.
It said it also considered that the building of a new hall in a grade 1 scheduled national monument in a world heritage site for the exhibition and storage of the tapestries should have been part of an overriding exercise for a holistic approach to any additions or modifications to the structure of the Cathedral, annexes and all its surrounding buildings.
It recommended that before the proposal was put into effect, a serious study on the impact of the proposed structure and its necessity should be undertaken.
With specific reference to the intended shifting of the Great Siege Monument, it recommended that special care should be taken in preserving both the monument and the underlying ossuary and said all work should be subject to constant competent supervision.
The foundation said that the preservation of St John’s Co-Cathedral and its priceless art collections was the focus of the extension and refurbishment of the museum, announced in February and specifically designed to meet three pressing challenges.
It was intended to relieve the church from overcrowding and therefore to reduce conservation pressures on one of the world’s most important baroque interiors.
The sensitively designed museum, it said, would make use of all the spaces within its existing footprint greatly improving visitors’ circulation. This would also provide the space and means to give visitors an educational and comfortable visit.
It was also intended to create a hall to exhibit the set of Flemish tapestries, the largest 17th-century series based on the creations of world-renowned artist Peter Paul Rubens and to install a Caravaggio Centre, the cathedral being the owner of the largest and most important work by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. It would serve to reaffirm Malta’s contribution to international art historical studies.
The foundation said the entrance and exit would be from Merchants Street through the modern arches built in the post-World War II decades.
The monument to the knights who fell in the Great Siege, it said, would become the focus of attention as visitors entered the courtyard. It would be given the attention it deserved, as the visitors tour would start from this point with an explanation on the audio guide highlighting its history.
The foundation said its plan was to redesign the concrete platform constructed in the 1960s to evoke interest to the space and allow better circulation around the monument.
A specifically designed elegant marble podium would be engraved with the names of the knights said to have had their remains transferred to Valletta from Vittoriosa. The view provided from street level on Merchant’s Street into the courtyard, it said, would be enhanced and passers-by would be able to enjoy the view of the interior space which would be appropriately furnished and lit during the evening.
The museum would pay homage to the knights who built the monument and embellished it with precious works of art by providing the mandatory exhibition space, conservation conditions, correct display and didactic means of the works of art that belong to this church.