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Appreciation: Dominic Cutajar

Dominic Cutajar (1938-2023) was an art historian and curator of Fine Arts at the Museum of St John’s Co-Cathedral and later, at the former National Museum of Fine Arts. Dominic was an unassuming specialist who was always prepared to help fellow scholars and students. He helped shape the future of many who wanted to pursue art history well before this discipline formed part of the island’s university studies. His achievements were quiet, but steady and strong. Sadly Dominic remains one of those unsung professionals whose contribution to Malta’s cultural sector was enormous.

 I first met Dominic in 1982. A job seeker, I was interviewd for a post of research assistant at the Cathedral Museum in Mdina. Dominic was one of my interviewers, along with the late Mgr John Azzopardi and the inimitable Mgr Prof. Edoardo Coleiro. The interview went well. I took my first steps in the world of cultural heritage. 

Dominic had already taken up the prestigious position of Curator of the Museum of St John’s Co-Cathedral. He remained in that position until 1988. From 1988 until his retirement in 2000, Dominic curated the National Museum of Fine Arts and the island’s national collections. Under his watchful eye, he also managed frontier movements of artworks. Dominic was the government’s adviser on fine arts and related matters.

For four decades we remained friends and professional colleagues. Up to recent years, Dominic was the go-to person for advice on Maltese art history. A gentleman by nature, Dominic was one of those academics who was accessible and who always found time for a good chat on all things cultural. He always provided sound expertise freely. As key policy adviser he provided sound frameworks of international standard.

Dominic Cutajar was educated at the Lyceum. At the University of Malta he read Mediterranean Studies. However, his expertise had deeper roots as seen in his various public-spirited initiatives and contributions to environmental issues, to Maltese history and the arts. Dominic’s career was always in the service of a good public cause. For him, culture and the environment were high public priorities.

In this spirit, Dominic was one of the founding members of the Malta Ornithological Society (MOS), which later fused into Birdlife Malta. The first meeting was held at his private residence on January 25, 1962. The first major environmental campaign by MOS came in 1966. The new environmental NGO successfully stopped the construction of a road through the Għadira wetland. The site would have been lost for future generations.

It is his work in art history and cultural heritage for which he will be always remembered. Since 1978, Dominic embarked on a series of studies and exhibition reviews which he published in national newspapers. As an art critic, Dominic provided accessible interpretations of art exhibitions. But perhaps more importantly, he used his writing to provide a nationwide platform for artists and aspiring researchers to promote their work at an age in which social media were inconceivable. He publicised key art events which would have otherwise received little attention. At the National Museum of Fine Arts, he curated numerous temporary exhibitions at a time when art galleries were rare. Local artists had a venue to express their art in.

 His work at St John’s predated the establishment of the St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation by a number of years. As colleagues know so well, the challenge at St John’s is how to balance the requirements of cult with visitor requirements and complex conservation issues.

 Even after assuming the direction of the National Museum of Fine Arts, Dominic remained involved in St John’s Co-Cathedral. As government’s key adviser on art history, he was tasked with overseeing the implementation of numerous restoration projects.

In particular, this involved the implementation of initiatives that were generously funded by Italy through its financial protocols. This work was significant in bringing forth the potential of St John’s as one of the world’s key religious sanctuaries of pan-European character.

In retirement, Dominic became key art expert to numerous committees that dealt with art historical matters. He remained involved in the Archdiocese Catholic Cultural Heritage Commission for some years. As a past master, he was a source of institutional memory which is always essential for continuity in the midst of change. Like myself, many who now work in the cultural heritage and museum, will remain indebted to Dominic’s work and legacy.