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Anna Mallia | Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Custody of our national treasures

I applaud the initiative taken by the wife of the former and late speaker Dr Jimmy Farrugia in donating the treasures they accumulated over the years to the museum of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mdina. I am sure that the Church has already made an inventory of such treasures, and records are properly kept so that the items and the numbers remain intact.
However I am not sure that this is the case with the treasures which fall under the custody of the Maltese government as represented by Heritage Malta. I was told lately how a painting bequeathed to the National Museum by a relative of the complainant had disappeared from the Museum of Fine Arts. The painting is still on the wall but according to the relative of the person who donated it, it first had the frame replaced and then, even the painting met the same fate and was replaced. As far as I know, the complainant has still not been provided with an explanation.
I have been told of other cases at the Palace, especially at the rooms occupied by our Members of Parliament, wherein it appears that these rooms have been ransacked and people who are familiar with the compounds of Parliament tell you of what was there and what is there now.
One thing is for sure: people nowadays do not bequeath any treasures to the government. This can either be a question of trust or lack of it or because they have nothing to treasure. But it is a fact that donations were popular in the past.
I do not know how in this day and age records and inventories are kept but I do know that before the digital era, records kept were scarce in information and it was easy to replace one painting or sculpture with another, as the inventory would provide no further details. Mind you, sometimes it is also odd how in Malta you find many treasures in the houses of people who worked with the national museum when we all know that people on a salary cannot afford to buy such treasures.
As far as I know, Heritage Malta has still not embarked on an extensive project so that all the artefacts in its possession and under its control be listed, photographed and described to detail and computerised. It is a shame how a painting is still listed as a painting, and no account is made of the type of painting, the type of picture frame, etc, etc. Were it not the case, how can one explain the fate of the painting which was lately discovered, by the relative of the person who donated it, to have been replaced with another one, and had previously had its picture frame substituted as well?
I do not know the role of Dame Tempra and how she was given the glorious house and garden bequeathed by the Fondazzjoni Gollcher for a pittance, on the undertaking that she promotes art in these islands. I know that Fr Marius Zerafa took the initiative but I still cannot understand how Fondazzjoni Gollcher is still happy with the arrangement – it ought to ensure that the house is serving the wishes of the testators.
It is high time that Heritage Malta looks into the will of the Gollcher family in order to make sure that the house in Mgarr presently occupied by Madame Tempra and leased to her by the then Director of Musuems Fr Marius Zerafa is according to the Gollchers’ testamentary wishes.
This is the problem with what you bequeath to the government: there is no seriousness in the business. No follow up is done and this tends to leave the people reluctant to donate any of its treasures to the people for fear that they fall in the hands of the privileged few and not for the general public. I am sure that the late speaker Dr Jimmy Farrugia made a wise decision in leaving his collection of silver antiques to the Church and not to the state as I am sure that the church treasures its treasures more than the government does.
It is the same of property of vacant inheritance. The government does not keep track of the curators appointed by the Second Hall Civil Court to represent the vacant inheritance. By law, after 30 years inheritances become the property of the government of Malta but the government is still reluctant to push that computer button and order the Registrar of Courts to notify him of any decisions regarding the appointment of curators representing vacant inheritances.
Obviously the role of the government does not stop there: it must also push another button so that after the lapse of 30 years it is reminded that it needs to take ownership of the land. Unfortunately in my 22 years’ experience as a lawyer I have never witnessed this happening but I did witness cases of developments taking place in properties which strictly speaking belong to the government.
This continues to show how weak the structures of government are when it comes to the upkeep of its possessions. You go to a gallery and there is never the record number or the reference number where the item has been logged; you do not find a picture of the artefact; you do not find information of how the artefact came to be in possession of the museum. The public has a right to be informed about each item under display and this is one of the ways that ensures such items are there to stay and not replaced or taken away completely.
I invite the Speaker of the House and the office of the President of Malta to do the same at the Palace and save what is there. The same exercise has to be done in all places which have something to treasure or to display. If people were kind and generous enough to give us what they treasure most, the least the government can do is to make sure that we safeguard these treasures for their sake and for the sake of this generation and for future generations.
Heritage Malta has a very important role in all this: it is Heritage Malta that is responsible for the safeguarding and upkeep of our national treasures and it is its primary duty to ensure that it has a state-of-the-art inventory and that the items on display match those that were donated. I know that funds are available in Brussels and such exercise is a must, as otherwise we stand the risk of facing further complaints about the authenticity of the donations on display.
This will be the first step to restore the trust of the people who may have second thoughts on how safe their treasures would be in the hands of the government and its authorities. Only by trust can we encourage the people to make such donations.


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