After five years at the helm of Malta’s national heritage agency, MARIO TABONE was shown the door by the new minister for culture, but he still speaks passionately about Heritage Malta as if he still is its chairman
Since Mario Tabone was appointed chairman of Heritage Malta five years ago, his main priority has been to create a momentum for public awareness about this island’s cultural riches. But in doing so, he was actually confronting an old, widespread indifference to our heritage, coupled with confusing messages sent from the top.
An ophthalmologist by profession, Dr Tabone has witnessed during his term from the barbaric acts of vandalism on our world heritage sites, to the preposterous proposals from government to, among others, build a rubbish dump right next to the prehistoric temple of Mnajdra – all flying in the face of the official rhetoric about our wonderful history.
But despite all the lip service, he still marched on against the grain in organising the agency entrusted with the management of Malta’s heritage. In the midst of the Mnajdra landfills controversy, he had aptly quoted the former president of The Nature Conservancy, John C. Sawhill, in warning that “our society would be judged not only by what we build but also by what we refuse to destroy”.
Since then, although the Mnajdra landfills have been fortunately scrapped for good, those words still ring true, as hideous buildings keep cropping up to replace the old ones in an unwavering act of mass destruction.
From his home in Swieqi, where he has a library of over 9,000 books in the basement, Tabone speaks of cultural heritage as “sacred” although he admits very few realise this is the case.
“There is a philosophy to Heritage Malta, and the primary principle is that cultural heritage is sacred, for a number of reasons, because it gives us identity, dignity and credibility as a nation, and a factor that is not given very much importance is that it is a major factor of social cohesion,” he says. “You can never have a civil society unless, in spite of contention, there is a cohesive common wealth, which is cultural heritage. So heritage is sacred for those reasons, and there should be no compromise as far as it’s concerned.
“From the word go five years ago, one of our main targets was to intensify public awareness to the importance of cultural heritage. You could never create a social movement and a climate which is favourable to cultural heritage unless the people appreciate what it’s about. So we set out to raise the standards on our sites, to international levels, because we believe that eventually, collectively, this would transform our cultural heritage into the glory of the nation.”
The 69-year-old doctor is extremely wary of the idea of culture being exclusive for elite circles.
“Heritage belongs to everyone,” he insists. “It’s not there for professors and experts, it belongs to all of us. Even throughout my career as a doctor, I have never met anyone who was not responsive once they realise that what I am saying about culture is genuine. I meet patients who would tell me ‘I heard you talk about that book … not that I understood all you said but I enjoyed watching you.’ I don’t think it’s empty talk. There is a thirst out there for what defines us as Maltese.”
To this end, he has a list of projects, publications and events to boast of, that have defined Heritage Malta over the last years.
“We have a very egalitarian attitude to this and we tried every way and means to convey information. We have launched a number of educational programmes, for example at the Inquisitor’s Palace, at the Armoury, and other places, where we target even children of a younger age, with the subjects linked up with the national curriculum. We’ve also published books in that regard. Once you instil a sense of pride in the public, you can do much more.”
Beyond Maltese territory, Heritage Malta has also pursued what he calls “cultural diplomacy” through some 32 exhibitions abroad, spanning from China to the US.
“I think these are important because they consolidate our credibility as a nation. We are not just a small speck of rock, we are actually a nation. On a practical and economic level, many people abroad do not know what Malta is, certainly before they come here. These kind of exhibitions spread around the wealth and intensity of our heritage. We have seen this very recently in Alicante, where we have an ongoing exhibition about temples and our prehistory in a museum that was Museum of Europe 2004. The enormous response was spectacular.”
I ask him whether he found a more welcome reception abroad than from the Maltese, to which he replies with his disarming smile: “This question makes me very happy because in the last few years I have seen a very noticeable response from the general public. We get quite a lot of feedback, letters. With all our limitations we still had a rather brisk response from the public, especially from parents who have never been familiar with historic sites and who have been introduced through the programmes for children. We had one very recently where we tried to link sports with heritage. We had hundreds of people coming to the Fine Arts Museum, which is traditionally deserted, and many adults actually spoke to me saying they became aware of the richness there because they were there with their children. At the Inquisitor’s Palace, we set up enactments for children on real cases taken from the documents of the Inquisition. It’s extraordinary how they responded. They acted the parts well wearing very fine costumes of the period; it was not a scabrous case of course.”
Among the major achievements, Tabone lists the Palace armoury, which after two phases of refurbishment is now “by far the best armoury in the Mediterranean and among the top 10 in the world”, besides hosting the famous Chinese terracotta warriors.
“Hopefully in the next six months or so, works on the national museum of archaeology will also be completed. Apart from the Neolithic part on the ground floor, you’ll have the Punic, the Roman and the Byzantine parts. We’re opening up soon also the upgraded War Musuem, and we’ve done a lot of work at the Inquisitor’s Palace which is now really worth visiting.”
Almost completed is also the archaeology museum in Gozo, as well as restoration works in Ggantija, while Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are about to be covered by enormous tents after years of controversy on how these two great prehistoric temples could be preserved.
“Controversy has raged over years and years on whether they should be tented or not. Naturally enough, all of us would like to see Hagar Qim and Mnajdra as they are now. But the problem is, apart from the aesthetic side, can we afford to lose these monuments? They are actually degrading at a very fast rate. We had to make a decision: shall we or shall we not protect these monuments? We have photographs dating back to 1928, which is not centuries ago, and still, there is an enormous difference. So degradation is no only in progress, but it is also accelerating, so we have to do something about it.
“We had total laser scanning of the areas. The tents are also quite bodacious, if I may say so, and a lot of study has gone into them, although the public will still be able to enjoy the summer solstice thanks to the tents’ design. It’s a very complex business. Don’t forget that Heritage Malta also manages the national centre for conservation. With the backroom scientists, the conservators and the curators working together, I think it’s an honour for the country to have an institution to bring together the competence and ingenuity of so many people.”
The tents should be up by the end of the year, he says. They are manufactured already, but erecting them on site requires a long, meticulous study where every hole dug has to be researched, the subsoil examined and a multitude of other factors taken into consideration.
“One has to appreciate as well that giant tents like these involve an enormous amount of backroom studies, but there are also rules of physics that cannot be transgressed. I have never seen a huge tent hanging in the air without touching the ground. So there will be a number of anchorages to the ground which have been selected very, very carefully. And this takes a lot of time, because to all of us this is hallowed ground.”
I tell him he talks as if he was still the chairman of Heritage Malta, to which he smiles apologetically.
“I apologise for doing that, but it’s become so much a part of me. I would like to make it very clear that Heritage Malta, which over the last years has carried close to 600 events and activities here and abroad, made all this possible because the staff are really excellent; they are dedicated, professional and passionate. I’m one of those people who believe that you can have a hundred degrees, but unless you have passion you can never go that extra mile. So to the people of Heritage Malta I give my heartfelt salutations.”
Last November, Heritage Malta and this newspaper crossed swords dramatically over the Caravaggio exhibition, almost in the very spirit of the great artist and murderer in real life. It revolved around the controversial paintings that were being attributed to the master of chiaroscuro, with art experts disagreeing out in the open.
Tabone defends the exhibition for putting Malta “on the international circuit of great exhibitions” – an ambition that would have been easily dismissed before.
“We have proved that we can make it, both for us and for prospective tourists,” he says.
About the proposed developments at St John’s Co-Cathedral, he says that any proposal there “is bound to be controversial” but stops short of taking a stand.
“I think such a bold proposal has to be studied in detail, but frankly I’m not in a position to express myself.”
Leaving Heritage Malta will not be easy for Tabone. He has been going to the agency’s offices daily since his appointment.
“My term finished on Thursday 31 July. Till 8:30pm I was still on Heritage Malta business opening an exhibition at the Maritime Museum. On Friday, I went to work as a doctor, and as soon as I finished work at the clinic I was heading to Swieqi, but in Msida I found myself taking the wrong turning to Valletta, because for five years that’s what I had been doing.”
His passion, drive and charisma must have left an impact on the staff there. Most of them had petitioned the new minister for culture, Dolores Cristina, to keep Tabone as their chairman, but she would have none of it, appointing instead a businessman who is also totally unknown in the cultural scene, a director of Standard Publications (publishers of The Malta Independent) and chairman of Lombard Bank and of Maltapost – that ailing company which somehow delivers letters to our letter boxes when they are well overdue.
“I thought it was rather funny that until a couple of days before I hadn’t been contacted,” he says about the minister’s decision. “I got to know I wouldn’t be reappointed on Tuesday (two days before his last day). Obviously enough, if I had been asked, I would have stayed.”
As to the priorities for the new chairman, he believes it is very important first to get to know the people and the agency’s major operations – which are vast.
“There is also heritage research, which is vital. In my first week I had set up a fund to finance research, and it’s essential that this is kept going. And it’s important for all of us to understand the importance of investing in our heritage. No kind of tourism will ever be sustainable unless it is cultural tourism. This is an area where I have perhaps failed, because the response to this appeal has not been as pro-active as I expected it to be.
Meanwhile in what looks like a risible afterthought, the minister “offered” Tabone the nominal post of chairman of the committee meant to organise the events for the European Cultural Capital in the next decade. Malta will be celebrating the event in 2018, and a programme of activities has to be organised six years in advance.
“I have not accepted it,” was his curt reply.