From ashes and debris, Beirut’s iconic museum reopens 3 years after massive damage caused by port explosion
BEIRUT — Lebanon’s Sursock Museum has reopened to the public, three years after a deadly explosion in Beirut’s port – triggered by tons of improperly stored chemicals – burned many of its prized paintings and collections to ashes.
Friday night’s reopening offered residents of Beirut a rare bright spot in a country reeling from a crippling economic crisis that has left around three-quarters of Lebanon’s population of 6 million in poverty.
Originally built as a private villa in 1912 on a hill overlooking the Achrafieh district, the opulent residence has integrated Venetian and Ottoman styles. Its owner, renowned Lebanese art collector Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock, bequeathed his beloved home to his people, to be turned into a museum of contemporary art when he died in 1952.
The museum housed Lebanese art dating back to the late 1800s, including the work of distinguished painter Georges Corm and Fouad Debbas’ library of 30,000 photographs – one of the largest private photo collections. The photos come from across the Levant, a region encompassing eastern Mediterranean countries from Turkey to Egypt, from 1830 to the 1960s. In 2008, a seven-year project renovated and expanded the museum, reviving it in 2015.
But the August 4, 2020, explosion in the port of Beirut – only about 800 meters (875 yards) away – hit the museum head-on. Its stained glass windows were smashed, doors were blown out and almost half of the works on display were damaged. The blast ripped through much of Beirut, killing more than 200 people and injuring more than 6,000.
The destruction was unprecedented, said museum director Karina El Helou, a level not seen even during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. Seventy percent of the building was badly damaged, as were 66 of the 132 artworks on display, she said. Shards of glass ripped through the portrait of Nicolas Sursock by Dutch artist Kees Von Dongen.
Two months after the explosion, Zeina Arida, then director of the museum, launched a fundraising campaign, estimating the damage at around $3 million at the time. The museum eventually raised over $2 million to restore the building and artwork with support from Italy, France, UNESCO, and various private organizations.
The restoration was a long and meticulous job. Sursock’s portrait was taken to Paris, along with two other works of art, and restored there. Experts from Lebanon and abroad flocked to the museum to reconstruct the damaged terracotta sculptures and repair the tears and scratches that had marred the paintings. Dust and debris from the explosion have been carefully removed to restore the splendor of many objects.
“The white powder from the explosion that we saw everywhere in Beirut even reached our warehouse four stories underground,” El Helou said. She hopes the reopening will lift the spirits of many Lebanese amid the country’s economic collapse – and provide a “safe space”. for freedom of expression.
Art is now more important than ever, she added. “In the face of darkness, (artists) fought through art and culture,” she said.
Dozens of people gathered in Sursock’s large tree-lined courtyard on Friday evening, accompanied by a choir and a band performing on the entrance staircase for the reopening. The museum, which looked almost exactly as it did before the explosion, heaved sighs of appreciation. Others remember how Beirut has withered since then and how dozens of artists have left the country.
“I now hope that all the friends of the Sursocks who may have left Lebanon in recent years will come back to visit us,” museum president Tarek Mitri told The Associated Press as he greeted the guests.
The Sursock Museum was not the only art space damaged in the port explosion and restored in the years that followed.
Marfa Projects, a gallery near one of the harbor entrances, was eventually rebuilt and reopened. Others, such as the Saifi Urban Gardens, a family hostel that over the years has become a vibrant cultural center with art studios and exhibition space, have been destroyed and permanently closed.
Without financial backing, many heritage buildings, including 19th-century Ottoman-era houses damaged by the blast, could eventually be sold to developers. The cash-strapped Lebanese government has been unable to fund major restoration projects.
Mona Fawaz, a professor of urban studies and planning at the American University of Beirut, said the Sursock Museum’s ability to fundraise through its networks and management is a valuable lesson for others.
“I think it’s good to think that this is potentially one of our few successes,” Fawaz said.
At Friday’s reopening, visitors were able to view five new exhibitions of classical and modern art – a testament to Lebanon’s artistic and cultural history and the perseverance of its people despite the country’s troubled past.
One of the exhibits, titled “Ejecta”, is set up in a darkened room where a video and audio recording reflect the port explosion. Zad Moultaka, the artist behind the installation, said he hoped it would inspire people to turn their gloomy thoughts about that day into hope for the future.
“Throughout the civil war, we always found a way to rise up,” he said.
“But my initial feeling after the explosion was doubt. I wondered if we would be able to persevere after what happened,” Moultaka added. “It’s important today to take this violence and turn it into something positive.”