Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit to protect underwater cultural assets

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Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit to protect underwater cultural assetsThe launch has been announced of the first Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit within Heritage Malta, for the management and protection of underwater cultural assets of Malta and Gozo.

Minister for Justice, Culture and Local Government Owen Bonnici, said “thanks to this initiative, we will see to the setting up of underwater archaeological parks which will bring a number of benefits, primarily the safeguarding of our country’s unequalled and precious underwater cultural resource.”

He added that, “this is in line with local heritage legislation as well as with international conventions.”

Minister Bonnici explained that “with the creation of new accessible sites by divers and through virtual reality, we will give added value to the diving tourism package offered by the Maltese Islands.”

“It is envisaged that the Maltese Islands will become a market leader in the field of deep-water wreck diving,” he said.

“The Unit will also be undertaking an outreach campaign aimed at informing the public about the importance of its underwater cultural heritage as part of enhancing our cultural strategy to ensure in making this sector more accessible,” Minister Bonnici continued.

“Systematic underwater archaeological research has been conducted off the coasts of Malta and Gozo for a number of years.” The Minister added that in the course of this long-term project some very important deposits of underwater cultural heritage have been discovered, mapped and studied.

He explained that such sites vary from a 2,700-year-old Phoenician shipwreck, discovered off the coast of Gozo, which is the oldest in the central Mediterranean, to dozens of aircraft crash sites, and from early modern shipwrecks to battleships from World War I.

“A significant number of nations and cultures – both past and present – are represented on the seabed off the Maltese Islands,”said Minister Bonnici.

This variety makes Malta the curator for a uniquely well-preserved cultural resource that is global and that belongs to all humankind, he said.

The Government of Malta, through the Ministry of Justice, Culture and Local Government, has therefore built the platform for the management, protection and valorisation of underwater assets, the Minister said.

It has done so by creating the first Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit (UCHU) within Heritage Malta; the national agency for the management of Malta’s cultural heritage collections, sites and museums.

The Minister said that the UCHU has, in collaboration with the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, is been tasked with identifying a number of underwater sites so that these may be accessed by divers in a controlled and managed manner.

It is envisaged that approximately 10 historic sites will be open this year, the Minister said, and Heritage Malta will strive to open between 3 and 5 new sites in 2020 and 2021.

Shipwreck access will be managed via an online booking system administered by Heritage Malta.

In order to manage Malta’s underwater cultural heritage, local dive schools, boats and clubs will be obliged to register online with Heritage Malta.

Minister Bonnici concluded by saying that the agency will be monitoring historic shipwrecks through regular spot checks to ensure the protection of such underwater cultural sites.

Photograph: DOI/James Galea

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