Updated | PN wants minister to explain how mysterious restaurant concession at heritage site was granted

PN spokesperson Julie Zahra demands an explanation from Owen Bonnici over a restaurant that mysteriously sprouted up in the courtyard of the Natural History Museum in Mdina • Heritage Malta says arrangement was a four-week trial that is now over

Heritage Malta did not issue a tender for the operation of a restaurant in Palazzo Vilhena's courtyard and the PN is now demanding an explanation from Culture Minister Owen Bonnici on the matter (Photo: Facebook)
Heritage Malta did not issue a tender for the operation of a restaurant in Palazzo Vilhena's courtyard and the PN is now demanding an explanation from Culture Minister Owen Bonnici on the matter (Photo: Facebook)

Updated at 3:20pm with Heritage Malta reaction

The Nationalist Party is demanding an explanation on Heritage Malta’s decision to allow a private restaurant operation in Mdina’s Palazzo Vilhena without a call for tenders.

PN heritage spokesperson Julie Zahra said Culture Minister Owen Bonnici has to answer for the heritage agency’s decision.

She was referring to the use of the courtyard in Palazzo Vilhena, which houses the Natural History Museum, by a restaurant operator for fine dining purposes. The Palazzo is public property managed by Heritage Malta.

“Palazzo Vilhena in Mdina started being used recently by a private operator as a restaurant on the terms of a mysterious agreement entered into by Heritage Malta. Everything was done surreptitiously and nobody knows how this agreement was reached,” Zahra said in a statement on Wednesday.

Zahra added that Heritage Malta was using the national heritage for commercial reasons that go beyond its remit. “Moreover, this was done without a transparent process and for the PN this is unacceptable.”

The Shift News recently reported that no tender had been issued for the concession, which was entrusted to the owners of Rabat’s Grotto Tavern. Heritage Malta did confirm the concession was granted without a tender being issued, claiming it was a “temporary experiment” with a “third party” the agency already had a contractual relationship with.

The owners of Grotto Tavern had won a tender for the operation of a restaurant at another Heritage Malta site in Valletta, the Museum of Fine Arts, known as MUZA.

The PN spokesperson also noted the lack of curators at Heritage Malta and government’s lack of investment in these professionals. Zahra said government was only interested in money and not the proper safeguarding of Malta’s heritage.

Heritage Malta reacts

Heritage Malta clarified in a statement that it has a commercial arm – Heritage Malta Services Ltd – which has been operating since 2005 with the aim of commercialising any resources. It said this commercial aspect intended to generate funds which are then injected back into the protection of the national cultural heritage.

On the Vilhena Palace restaurant, the agency said that it used an existing commercial contract to embark on a four-week trial running from 19 July until 14 August, to "analyse the viability and monetary potential" of such a restaurant.

"The aim of the initiative was also to establish whether Heritage Malta should issue a public call in this regard in future or whether it should be Heritage Malta itself that operates the initiative internally," the agency said. "Such arrangements are conducted regularly, in particular with regard to private functions and events held when Heritage Malta sites are rented out."

Heritage Malta said it does not promote such functions and neither did it promote the initiative of temporary catering at Vilhena Palace but acknowledged that the company in charge of the catering did promote the initiative through its own channels.

The statement did not specify the financial nature of the temporary initiative.

Regarding the comments mentioning Heritage Malta’s curators, the agency said that during the last four years it has  invested in its curatorial staff and recruited several new employees as curatorial support to assist curators in their day-to-day tasks.

"Curators are deemed as very important by the agency, so much so that in Heritage Malta’s recent restructuring curatorial positions were consolidated and elevated, including the creation of higher curatorial positions. While preserving our national heritage and making it accessible, as it has done for the past years, Heritage Malta strives to generate the necessary funds to be re-invested in the protection of our national heritage," the statement concluded.