Monetising Vilhena Palace

Malta’s National Museum of Natural History has been suddenly transformed into an open-air restaurant – without a permit and with no call for tender. It was entrusted to Heritage Malta. But it belongs to the nation. Instead, it’s been given over to Jonathan Pace, owner of Grotto Tavern, to run a €120 per head “unique gastronomic experience”.

What Heritage Malta, its chairman, former principal permanent secretary Mario Cutajar or its CEO Noel Zammit are getting out of the deal is unclear. Minister Owen Bonnici claims Heritage Malta is getting €50 per day. Who authorised this opaque and illicit arrangement is unclear.  What Malta’s getting out of it, nobody knows.

Who’s really benefitting from this secretive deal?

Palazzo Vilhena houses the Natural History museum. It’s one of the most beautiful French Baroque palaces in Malta. In 1722, Grandmaster de Vilhena, whose name the palace bears, took over the building on that site which housed the Universita’, Malta’s self-government. The Universita’s building was swiftly demolished in a brazen demonstration of the grandmaster’s power.

In its place, Vilhena built his own elegant summer palace, designed by Charles Francois de Mondion. Malta’s self-government was banished to the Banco Giuratale. Vilhena now occupied the most important site in the old city, traditionally the seat of the Maltese nobility.

The Grandmaster’s show of force did not go unnoticed, and many Maltese continued to harbour grudges against the Grandmaster and the Order. The palace was completed in just two years. Less than 70 years later, the Order was kicked out of the country by Napoleon. Many Maltese nobles actively supported the French invasion, still smarting from the humiliation they endured at the hands of Vilhena.

Vilhena Palace contributed significantly to the nation. It served as a hospital several times to treat cholera and tuberculosis.  It served as barracks during the British era. In 1973, it was inaugurated as the National Museum of Natural history.

The palace forecourt, now transformed into an upmarket restaurant, underwent extensive restoration in the early 2000s and was subsequently used for cultural events. The palace is a Grade 1 national monument listed on the National Inventory of the Cultural Property of the Maltese Islands. But that hasn’t stopped somebody from making a quick buck.

That forecourt has been operating as a restaurant for the last few weeks. It is not run by Heritage Malta, entrusted with managing this national treasure, but by Jonathan Pace of Grotto Tavern. Pace already runs a restaurant at the Auberge d’Italie, in Valletta – another Malta Heritage site. He won a public tender to run a restaurant there – but not anywhere else. No tender was issued for Vilhena palace.

Heritage Malta CEO Noel Zammit confirmed to The Shift that no tender was issued to transform the museum into a restaurant.  He claimed this was a ‘temporary experiment’ – a somewhat expensive experiment considering that Jonathan Pace is charging €120 per head and adverts online indicate that it can host 250. That’s €30,000 turnover in just one evening – without drinks and wine. Not bad for a €50 daily rental.

CEO Noel Zammit was rather coy about the details.  He claimed the restaurant had only been operating for a “couple of weeks” and that it “hosted a food and snack service”.  But a private website marketed the restaurant as “a unique gastronomical experience”.

Zammit claimed that “no food preparation or cooking occurs on site” – probably because there is no licence for this. But the restaurant’s website claims that it allows patrons to “peer” into the on-site open kitchen.  They can’t both be right. CEO Zammit is lying, or the restaurant website is fooling its potential clients.

Zammit’s explanations and excuses are unconvincing. Why was no tender issued for the restaurant by Heritage Malta? “Because the third party already has a contractual relationship with the agency following a public call,” he said.

Zammit is trying to deceive.  That public call had nothing at all to do with Vilhena Palace.  It covered only Auberge d’Italie. Does the fact that Pace won a tender to run a restaurant in one of Heritage Malta’s sites entitle him to run a restaurant in all the other 50 odd sites Heritage Malta manages?

Zammit was on the defensive.  This is just “a trial for a temporary period to enable the Agency to assess the potential of such an undertaking and eventually consider issuing a public expression of interest”.

How long will that “temporary period” last? Probably until the weather makes outdoor activities less attractive and the endeavour unprofitable. And when will the public expression be issued? Nobody knows.

There are too many questions, none of which were adequately answered by Zammit or Minister Bonnici. Who authorised the use of a national treasure as a restaurant?  Who decided to hand this over to Jonathan Pace? When asked directly, Jonathan Pace could not remember whose idea it was to open a restaurant in the museum.  And he couldn’t divulge details of where the profit was going.

What assessment was made to ensure the restoration of the forecourt performed at a significant cost would not be damaged by the change of use to a restaurant? Does the restaurant even have a permit? Is there a kitchen on site or not? If so, is it safe to have a commercial kitchen in a museum that holds fragile fossils, fauna and flora?

Vilhena Palace is again the site of flagrant abuse of power. Vilhena humiliated the Maltese by demolishing their meeting place to build his own palace. His message – I do as I please with your property, and you can do nothing about it.

By commercialising our national heritage without permits, without open calls and in complete secrecy, Labour’s political appointees send the same message – we do as we please with your property, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

                           
                               
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Joseph Tabone Adami
Joseph Tabone Adami
1 month ago

“Bazwar ftit ‘l hawn u bazwar ftit ‘l hemm” – by the way who was it who had said that, some years ago – seems to have been quite widely adopted to suit, or cover up, a number of goings-on, doesn’t it!

Last edited 1 month ago by Joseph Tabone Adami
T. P.
T. P.
1 month ago

Opening cafeterias seems to be the latest craze.

It is publicly anticipated that the next one would be at the yacht marina at Ta Xbiex with the erection of Transport Malta’s Offices that, if really needed, could be erected practically anywhere without clogging further the parking spaces currently available there with TM and staff vehicles (apart from visitors). But then who wants an eatery away from a prime site?

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