UNESCO-Malta meeting discusses public access to underwater cultural heritage


2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. It is also the year that Malta ratified this Convention. In the light of these milestone achievements, a one-day online conference was jointly organised by UNESCO and Heritage Malta’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit (UCHU).

The seabed is considered to be the world’s largest museum, which, however, is inaccessible and invisible to the majority of the public. It is for this reason that the UNESCO Convention identifies awareness as the most direct route towards site protection and preservation, and access to underwater sites is recognised as the most effective way to raise this awareness.

The problem with access lies in the nature of underwater sites as being located on the seabed, accessible only to those members of the public that dive. When it comes to diver access, Malta has since 2019 implemented a management system that revolves around regulated diver access, where regulation is intended to balance both site protection and site access.

In order to raise awareness amongst the non-diving public, Malta launched the virtual museum Underwater Malta in June 2020. This online platform aims to create an accessible route to Malta’s unique underwater cultural heritage, allowing all members of the public to virtually dive into history.

The full-day event saw speakers from various countries including Argentina, the Philippines, Mexico, Italy, Spain, and Greece amongst others, present an overview of projects and ideas that are all seeking to provide access to underwater cultural heritage – virtually, in museums, through exhibitions and on the seabed.

Minister for National Heritage, the Arts and Local Government, José Herrera, opened proceedings with a message to participants whereas Prof. Timmy Gambin, who heads UCHU, delivered one of the keynote addresses. The Underwater Malta virtual museum was presented at the UNESCO conference by Maja Sausmekat, UCHU’s Underwater Archaeology Coordinator, to an international audience of recognised speakers and attendees.