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GSD is ‘out of touch’ on heritage, Govt says

Heritage Minister Dr John Cortes at the restored Lime Kiln.

The Gibraltar Government on Tuesday defended its record on heritage, citing multiple projects and initiatives over the past 12 years as it dismissed GSD criticism accusing the government of “general disinterest and apathy”.

In a statement ahead of World Heritage Day on Tuesday, the GSD’s Damon Bossino had said it was “perplexing” that heritage sites received “so little exposure”, citing government data on visitor statistics to argue that heritage did not “properly” form part of the visitor experience.

But in a seven-page statement by way of response, Heritage Minister Dr John Cortes rejected the GSD’s analysis “outright” and said heritage management was “not a simple numbers game”.

“It would be comical, if it were not worrying that the GSD, and Mr Bossino in particular should be so seriously out of touch with what’s happening in Gibraltar,” Dr Cortes said.

“It is a total lack of respect for all those who work in heritage, including the Heritage Trust whose voice is heard more than ever by the Government.”

“It is a real pity that on the day that Gibraltar is celebrating World Heritage Day, Mr Bossino should choose to introduce negativity with the sole aim of scoring political points.”

“On a day when Gibraltar celebrates its greatest accolade in the field of heritage, Mr Bossino has chosen to tell the world how badly, in his limited view, the heritage environment is managed in Gibraltar.”

“I reject Mr Bossino’s analysis outright.”

“It is a real pity that Mr Bossino, with his apparently newly found passion for heritage, was too busy to attend last night’s [meaning Monday] World Heritage Day Lecture which was given to a standing room-only audience at the John Mackintosh Hall.”

“He would have understood immediately the appetite and awareness that exists for heritage in Gibraltar.”

“He would have also understood just how much work has been, and is being, done at our World Heritage Site and how much passion and sheer hard work is involved.”

“He throws all this, and much more, out of the window with his uneducated message to the world.”

Dr Cortes acknowledged the difficulties involved in managing Gibraltar’s rich heritage, insisting the government did everything possible to support and fund its protection and promotion.

But he said such funding had to be balanced against other demands across all areas of government.

He said Mr Bossino had confused heritage sites with tourist attractions “as though they were one and the same”.

“The prime function of heritage sites is the protection of their values,” Dr Cortes said.

“If they can also be opened to the public, then all the better, but visitor numbers are not the key indicators of the success or otherwise of a heritage site.”

“It is not a simple numbers game.”

“This philosophy is adopted in our only UNESCO World Heritage Site, appropriately focusing, first and foremost, on educational, scientific and cultural values, and it is precisely that which should be applied across the board to all our heritage sites.”

Dr Cortes said the sites were promoted online “and very well”, citing by way of example the 15,000 followers of the Gorham’s Cave Facebook Page, for example and Gibraltar National Museum pages 6,200 followers.

He also reflected on the international media exposure that Gorham’s Cave had received over the years, including coverage by major outlets including the BBC, National Geographic, the History Channel, Netflix, and other broadcasters in Spain, Japan, France and Germany.

Several major television crews are also expected in Gibraltar this summer, he said.

“In terms of publicity, few heritage sites anywhere, in a location with a population of around 30,000 inhabitants, can boast such exposure,” Dr Cortes said.

“We should all be proud of having such a special heritage which includes one with the top prize. Our view of our heritage must not be microscopic, based simply on visitor numbers – not everything in life has to be at the mercy of the numbers game.”

“Our heritage has huge educational value, research potential and needs protection.”

On the legislative front, Dr Cortes underscored the new Heritage and Antiquities Act introduced in 2018, a document that was last updated in 1989 under the previous GSLP administration.

And he accused the GSD of hypocrisy after it refused to support the National Park Act in Parliament recently, legislation created “precisely for the purpose of improving the promotion of our heritage”.

“We are doing our very best to protect and, where possible, also promote our heritage and we are blessed to have a wonderful team of world experts, some of whom have even acted as advisers to UNESCO in the past, working for us,” he said.

“I myself, have heritage very close to my heart, having been a founder member of the Gibraltar Heritage Trust back in 1987.”

“So, I speak from a position of knowledge and experience – I am not a newborn pseudo-defender of heritage out of political convenience.”

“Let us now all pull together in our support of one of ‘team Gibraltar’s’ most wonderful achievements, one we should all be proud of as a community.”

Dr Cortes said the past few years had seen several landmark events in the preservation of heritage, top among them the declaration of the Gorham’s Cave Complex as a World Heritage Site, “a huge occasion for Gibraltar and its international reputation”.

He said the Heritage and Antiquities Act had “vastly improved” the way in which heritage is protected, including setting up the Heritage and Antiquities Council and listing buildings such as St Andrew’s Church which just this week was put up for sale.

The Council is made up of representatives of the different entities, including NGOs in the area of heritage protection.

Dr Cortes said many “heritage gems that had long been totally neglected” had now been restored and were available for tourists and residents alike.

“These include the Nun’s Well which has been cleaned and restored, with the surrounding areas landscaped; the Almond Tower by the Moorish Castle; the Lime Kiln on the Upper Rock, which was near-derelict; the nearby City Under Siege Exhibition, which has been revamped and relaunched; Harding’s Battery area with an outdoor interpretation centre; and the Central Hall, which has been restored and given back the dignity that it had as a church, complete with stained glass windows,” the statement from the government said.

“In addition, serious work continues at the Northern Defences and in The Mount.”

Several Government projects had been recognised in receiving Heritage Awards from the Gibraltar Heritage Trust, the statement added.

Promotion of Gibraltar’s heritage online had also “taken off”, including the Ministry of Heritage’s recently launched Gibraltar Heritage website, which contains information and is now a point of reference to researchers.

“This online presence is in this day and age much more significant than physical visitors, in particular as some heritage sites, such as Gorham’s itself, are sensitive to footfall,” the statement added.

Dr Cortes also pointed to ongoing work including refurbishment of O’Hara’s Battery by volunteers from the Alabare charity; work on the WWII tunnels which are due to reopen before the summer; and plans to return a 9.2” gun to Levant Battery.

According to the statement, plans are also “progressing” to restore parts of the Moorish Castle for cultural use, while Gibraltar’s first formal Archaeological Site - other than Gorham’s - was declared in the area of Arengo’s Palace.

“The administration of heritage is working better than ever, with excellent communication between the players, including the Ministry, the Museum and the Gibraltar Heritage Trust,” the statement said.

“Developers and contractors working in sensitive areas now make the HAAC their first point of contact and work together in order to achieve projects that are not detrimental to - and often enhance - heritage.”

“There is a great deal more to do, and the financial constraints that resulted from the pandemic have delayed other work, but the potential remains and the plans are ambitious.”

“Indeed, the whole approach to heritage is being refreshed in the consultation ‘Heritage Vision’ document published today.”

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