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Heritage custodians in the making

Video: Mark Zammit Cordina

Not many teenagers list heritage conservation high among their hobbies, but quite a few, given the chance, might choose it as a career.

When the University of Malta offered a short awareness course in heritage conservation for teenagers at Junior College, the organisers had one big question: how would this notoriously hard-to-motivate age group take to a subject which dealt with ancient remains?

Intriguingly, the result was a huge success. First off, the response from Junior College students was overwhelming: “The course was meant to open for just 15 students. However, within a week we had more than 80 interested pupils,” JoAnn Cassar, head of the Built Heritage Department, said.

In the end, 30 students made it to the final selection. Prof. Cassar said: “As they all seemed very interested and motivated, we decided to double the intake.”

The course, a 35-hour stint which ran from February until May, offered a taste of conservation of cultural heritage through interactive sessions in class, site visits and hands-on sessions. Lecturers included local and foreign specialists from Israel, Italy, Belgium and Greece.

When The Times visited the students on the site of a 600-year-old cultural heritage building – the old parish church of Siġġiewi – they certainly looked keen and enthusiastic.

“What’s not to like?” they said. The opportunity to work with their peers, outdoors in the fresh air, seemed to appeal to young people with an eye for a practical and creative career.

“I’m studying sciences – biology and chemistry – but I love art, so doing this for me was a way of combining both fields,” Martina Bugelli, 16, said.

She said she got more than she expected out of the course: “It was an eye-opener – I had no idea this church existed, for example. But apart from learning how to preserve the future, we learnt practical life skills such as how to give presentations, working in teams and respecting others’ opinion.”

The aim of the course was to raise awareness of cultural heritage, in particular built heritage and its conservation. It has been funded through ELAICH, an EU-funded Euromed Heritage project of which the university’s department is partner together with academic institutions in Israel, Italy, Belgium and Greece.

All partner countries carried out a student awareness course. In Malta pupils were given the opportunity to link it to their Systems of Knowledge final project.

“We’re combining lectures with hands-on activities, and we’re basing our project on that,” Steve Borg, 16, said.

“It hasn’t been just classroom-based. After the lectures we’d come here and we’d be able to see with our own eyes all that we talked about.”

He explained how, with heritage conservation, action had to be preceded by analysis and research. “Now I can tell, just by observing carefully, that this old church has suffered a lot of weathering due to natural elements, and that it has a problem of salt deterioration,” he said.

Project assistant Roberta De Angelis said the students were lectured on the history of the old parish church of Siġġiewi and then shown how to assess the condition of the remains and what it entails to preserve them: “Those are the key concepts in the conservation process,” she said.

Until recently the church had been a dilapidated site used as an orchard. In 2006 the restoration unit undertook an extensive conservation project, which made the site accessible once more to the community.

“Our target is for the students to create a range of promotional material for this site, such as pamphlets and an information sign for tourists,” said Ms De Angelis.

The students’ work will be exhibited towards the end of the year. Their tutors expressed their satisfaction that, by the end of the course, the teenagers will be going back home appreciating their cultural heritage and willing to spread their awareness by talking about it to their friends and families.

“I’ve been really amazed by the enthusiasm of these 16-year-olds. It’s very encouraging. It just goes to show how the rich cultural heritage of Malta can be a powerful tool for learning and for preparing its future custodians,” Prof. Cassar said.

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