destroyed in the explosion of the port of Beirut, the Sursock museum reopens to the public
Heavily damaged by the double explosion at the Port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, the iconic Sursock Museum reopened to the public on Friday. Three years of work were needed to bring this jewel of Venetian and Ottoman architecture and its works back to life.
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A high place of Lebanese cultural life, the Sursock museum, which had been badly damaged by the deadly explosion at the port of Beirut in 2020, reopened its doors on Friday May 26, a symbol of a city determined to be reborn.
It took nearly three years of work for this jewel of Venetian and Ottoman architecture to regain its chiselled immaculate white facade, its flamboyant yellow and orange stained glass windows and its collection of modern and contemporary art. “We wanted this opening to be a gift for the whole city because, as a museum, we miss visitors,” says director Karina El Helou, among the workers who are finalizing the installations.
For her, this reopening is “a symbol of hope, of a return of cultural life in Lebanon”.
The explosion of August 4, 2020, due to the storage without precautionary measures of a large quantity of ammonium nitrate, killed more than 215 people and ravaged the neighborhoods near the port. Located 800 meters from the port, the mansion erected at the beginning of the XXe century was not spared: “70% of the Sursock museum was destroyed”, indicates Karina El Helou.
About fifty damaged works
The blast had shattered the stained glass windows, leaving the facade almost intact, but inside, ceilings collapsed and wooden panels were destroyed.
About fifty works, out of the 180 that the museum housed, were damaged. “This is the first time that we have seen (in the museum) such damage to works of art”, confides the 39-year-old director, justifying the two and a half years of work.
Among them, a centerpiece of the collection: a portrait of Nicholas Sursock, former owner of the house transformed into a museum, painted by the Franco-Dutch Kees van Dongen. Along with two other works, the slashed canvas was graciously restored by the Center Pompidou in Paris and regained its place in the permanent collection.
Opened in 1961, the Sursock Museum has witnessed the upheavals of the country, from the golden age of the 1960s to the civil war (1975-1990) and until the gigantic explosion of 2020.
It is this history and its influence on the local art scene that is honored in the retrospective organized for the reopening of the museum. “The artists are citizens who have experienced all the difficult times including the war (…) and have nevertheless produced high quality work”, says Karina El Helou.
The museum gives pride of place to Lebanese artists by presenting works by the painters Georges Daoud Corm and Jean Khalifé, or the sculptor Saloua Raouda Choucair.
The museum teams took turns to erase the traces of the disaster, and only one painting on display was not completely restored in order to bear witness to the tragedy. For the director, this work by the Lebanese artist Paul Guiragossian, some of whose pieces were torn off by the blast of the explosion, represents a “symbol of memory”.
Read also : Explosions at the port of Beirut: a year later, the Sursock museum is still healing its wounds
The restoration of the Sursock museum cost nearly 2.5 million dollars, according to this private institution.
In a country plunged into an unprecedented economic and political crisis, it was largely financed by Italy, through the initiative of Unesco Li Beirut (“for Beirut”), the French Ministry of Culture and Aliph, the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas.
“The Sursock Museum is a jewel of Lebanese architecture and cultural life, a powerful symbol of pride and resilience for the Beirut community,” said Audrey Azoulay, Director General of Unesco, in a press release.