Beirut’s iconic museum reopens from ashes and rubble three years after devastating port bombing | Wagon Radio 720

BEIRUT (AP) – Lebanon’s Sursock Museum opens to the public three years after a large amount of improperly stored chemicals caused an explosion in Beirut’s port that reduced many of its priceless paintings and collections to ashes. resumed.

Friday night’s reopening brought a rare bright light to residents of Beirut in a country rocked by a devastating economic crisis that has left about three-quarters of Lebanon’s six million people in poverty.

Originally built in 1912 as a private villa on a hill overlooking the city’s Achlaffie district, this opulent mansion was a fusion of Venetian and Ottoman styles. Its owner, Nicholas Ibrahim Sursock, a renowned Lebanese art collector, bequeathed his beloved home to the nation upon his death in 1952, and it was turned into a modern art museum.

The museum houses Lebanese art dating back to the late 1800s, including works by renowned painter Georges Corum and Foud Debas’ 30,000-photo library, one of the largest private photographic collections. The photographs were taken from 1830 to his 1960s across the Levant, a region that includes countries along the eastern Mediterranean from Turkey to Egypt. In 2008 he underwent a seven-year project to renovate and expand the museum, which was reopened in 2015.

But the explosion on August 4, 2020 in the port of Beirut, just about 800 meters (875 yards) away, hit the museum head-on. Stained-glass windows were shattered, doors were blown off, and nearly half of the artwork on display was damaged. The blast hit much of Beirut, killing more than 200 people and injuring more than 6,000.

According to museum director Karina El Helou, the destruction was unprecedented and not seen during the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990. She said 70 percent of the building was badly damaged and 66 of the 132 works of art on display were also damaged. A portrait of Nicholas Sursock by Dutch artist Keith von Dongen has been torn apart by shards of glass.

Two months after the blast, then museum director Zeina Alida launched a fundraiser, estimating the damage at the time was about $3 million. Ultimately, the museum raised over $2 million to restore the building and works of art, with the support of Italy, France, UNESCO and various private organizations.

The restoration was a long and painstaking task. Sursock’s portrait, along with two of his other works of art, was taken to Paris, where it was restored. Experts from inside and outside Lebanon flocked to the museum to piece together the damaged terracotta sculptures and repair the rips and scratches that damaged the paintings. Dust and debris from the explosion were carefully removed, and many items were restored to their former glory.

“The white powder from the explosions we saw all over Beirut reached the storage room on the fourth basement floor,” said El Herou. She hopes the reopening will boost morale for many Lebanese and provide a “safe space” for free expression amid the country’s economic collapse.

Art is more important now than ever, she added. “In the face of darkness, (artists) fought through art and culture,” she said.

On Friday night, dozens gathered in a large courtyard lined with Sursock trees to serenade the reopening on the entrance steps to the accompaniment of choirs and bands. The museum was almost the same as it was before the explosion, and I let out a sigh of admiration. Others recalled how Beirut had declined since then, and many artists had left the country.

“We hope that all our Sursok friends who may have left Lebanon in recent years will at least visit us,” museum director Tarek Mitri told the Associated Press, welcoming guests.

The Sursock Museum isn’t the only art space damaged by the harbor explosion that has taken years to restore.

Marfa Projects, a gallery near one of the harbor entrances, was eventually rebuilt and reopened. Facilities such as the family-run hostel Saifi His Urban Gardens, which for many years were vibrant cultural hubs with art studios and exhibition spaces, were also destroyed and permanently closed.

Without financial support, many historic buildings could eventually be sold to developers, including 19th-century Ottoman-era houses that were damaged by the blast. The cash-strapped Lebanese government has been unable to fund large-scale restoration projects.

Mona Fawaz, professor of urban studies and urban planning at the American University of Beirut, said the Sursock Museum’s ability to raise funds through its network and management was a valuable lesson for others.

“I think it’s good to think of this as potentially one of our rare success stories,” Fawaz said.

At Friday’s reopening, visitors were able to admire five new exhibitions of both classical and contemporary art. This is a testament to Lebanon’s artistic and cultural history and the perseverance of its people despite the country’s difficult past.

One of the exhibits, titled “Ejector,” is set in a darkened room and displays a video and audio recording of the harbor explosion. Zado Murtaka, the artist behind the installation, said he hopes the installation will inspire people to turn the dark thoughts of that day into hope for the future.

“Throughout the days of civil war, we have always found a way to stand up,” he said.

“But my first feeling after the explosion was doubt. I wondered if we could bear after what happened,” Mortaka added. “It is important today to take this violence and turn it into something positive.” Beirut’s iconic museum reopens from ashes and rubble three years after devastating port bombing | Wagon Radio 720

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