Beirut's historic Sursock museum still recovering from wounds of the blast

·9-min read

On August 4, 2020, the deadly Beirut port explosions devastated the historic Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum and some of its prized artworks. But a year later, one of the city’s most cherished museums is on its way to recovery. For the ornate building that houses the museum, it will be a new phase of a century-old relationship with the Beirut port.

As workers in the corridor manoeuvred construction gear, Zeina Arida opened the doors to the Salon Arabe in Beirut’s Sursock Museum and exhaled slowly, a smile lighting her eyes, as she entered the magnificent wood-panelled room.

Nestled on the museum's first floor, the Salon Arabe is a historic gem designed in the Orientalist diwan style complete with ancient Damascene wood engravings and Ottoman era flourishes.

For Arida, the director of the Sursock Museum, the exquisite room brought renewed delight. “I haven’t seen this room so clean for so long. I’ve come in here over the past year, but I haven’t seen the Salon Arabe like this. For those of us responsible for this museum and for its collection, it was very difficult to see this heritage, that belongs to everyone, destroyed and full of dust,” she explained.

One year after the August 4, 2020 Beirut port blast, which killed at least 200 people, the Sursock Museum is undergoing extensive renovations.

Situated barely 800 metres from the port, the museum was heavily damaged that fateful August evening. In a matter of seconds, the roof was destroyed in one of the world's largest non-nuclear explosions. The museum’s famed stained-glass windows shattered and tore through the building like missiles, chipping antique wooden doors and ripping priceless artworks. In a basement gallery, the force of the blast blew a fireproof vault door off its hinges and impaled it on the ceiling, where it still remains, like a paper kite trapped in a tree branch.

Intertwined histories of a villa and a port

Built in 1912, the building was the residence of Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock, an art collector and member of one of Beirut’s most prominent families. When he died in 1952, Sursock bequeathed his private villa in his will to the city, to be turned into a modern art museum that would be open to the public with no admission fee “eternally and perpetually” so that “my fellow citizens might appreciate art."

The histories of the grand Italianate Ottoman-style mansion and the port it has overlooked for over a century are intertwined in a give-and-take that has seen this Mediterranean coastal city through good times and bad.

The port was the gateway through which the Sursocks, an Orthodox Greek family, built their fortune, starting as Ottoman-era tax collectors and graduating to grain merchants during the colonial period. Along the way, the mercantile family rose up the social ranks, marrying European aristocrats and amassing substantial art collections.

Since it opened its doors to the public, the museum has survived wars and invasions, including Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, when it remained open as the country’s myriad religious groups fought internecine street battles with heavy weapons. Following the end of the war, it withstood a postwar development boom that saw soulless shopping malls built on historic ruins.

The August 4 blast, though, was different. The fact that 2,750 tons of hazardous chemicals could be overlooked and improperly stored in the Beirut port has infuriated a population sick of being celebrated for their resilience while the government fails to provide basic services.

In the absence of government help, the Sursock Museum staff are rushing ahead with a restoration estimated at $3 million by raising funds themselves, in yet another example of Lebanon’s triumph of private initiative while the state continues to fail its citizens.

Lebanon’s current economic crisis – the world’s worst in 150 years, according to the World Bank – has made an already difficult task almost Herculean. The historic give-and-take has been skewered and the museum’s restoration staff is mad as hell.

>> Read more: Lebanon's neo-liberal wheels are stuck in an economic crisis

A blast wipes out years of renovations

On the evening of August 4, 2020, Arida had left her window-lined office and was in her deputy director’s cabin when she heard an ominous noise that troubled her. Alerted by the sound, the museum staff rushed out of the offices and were near a stairwell when the explosion ripped through the city shortly after 6pm.

In hindsight, Arida realises the situation could have been a lot worse: the museum was closed to visitors during the pandemic, most of the staff had left and she was not in her office, which took a frontal hit. But two hours after the blast, when she finally left the premises, Arida recalled being hit by a wave of personal rage. “For half an hour, I was furious, shaking, just crying with anger. I thought we cannot reconstruct the museum again after all the work we had done,” she said.

In 2008, the Sursock Museum closed for major renovation and expansion works that saw basements added under the historic building to increase the gallery space of what was once a private residence. It took seven years to complete before Beirut’s beloved private museum reopened to the public – with no admission fee, as Sursock himself had stipulated.

Since its October 2015 reopening, the museum has held cutting-edge shows by Lebanese and international artists, including a specially curated Picasso exhibition displaying works estimated at over $200 million.

After years of renovation work, including fundraising and assembling expert teams, the sight of the museum’s destruction in the dying summer light of August 4, 2020, felt almost too much to bear.

Help from old friends, international donors

But in the next few days, aided by an overwhelming wave of solidarity from Lebanese and international lovers of the museum, Arida took up the responsibility of yet another renovation project.

The support was overwhelming. A grant from the Swiss-based International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH) covered the cost of plastic sheeting for the destroyed roof and windows before the winter rains arrived. Meanwhile, a one-million-euro Italian government grant, via UNESCO, was secured to fund part of the reconstruction.

The French culture ministry has supplied a 500,000 euro grant for the stained glass work and the Centre Pompidou in Paris is also undertaking the restoration of a torn portrait of Nicolas Sursock by Dutch-French painter Kees van Dongen, one of the 57 works in the museum collection that were damaged by the explosion.

Meanwhile, French construction multinational Saint-Gobain has donated glass for the windows and other construction needs. The donated glass has been used by Lebanese stained-glass artist Maya Husseini to recreate the signature red, blue and yellow Sursock windows, which she had painstakingly restored in 2015.

The latest renovation has brought together much of the team that worked on the 2008-2015 construction project, including architect Jacques Aboukhaled and restoration expert Camille Tarazi from Beirut’s Maison Tarazi.

Standing in the renovated Salon Arabe – a room where Sursock once entertained guests – Tarazi surveyed his work over the past 12 months, explaining how his family workshop managed to restore the damaged Damascene wood panels and frames. The stained-glass windows though were too shattered to restore – but not from lack of trying.

Maison Tarazi, which was established in 1862 and located in Beirut’s historic Mar Mikhael district right by the port also suffered heavy damage in the August 4 blast.

The day after the Beirut port explosion, Tarazi was busy in his family workshop, assessing and addressing the damage in an enterprise that has survived for over 150 years.

But it wasn’t long before Tarazi made his way to Beirut’s upscale Sursock district, home to many of the city’s heritage sites. “The Tarazis and Sursocks have been close family friends for generations,” he explained. “The most important thing after the explosion was not to throw away the elements – the pieces of wood, glass and material – but to save them. Then, step-by-step, after the emotions had calmed, we had to figure how to put it back together, like a jigsaw puzzle. It was completely crazy work,” he explained.

A swing and bench in tribute

A year after the blasts, the renovations are still a work in progress, one that makes Arida sweat – quite literally.

A tour of the museum complete, the 51-year-old director headed back to her office in the sweltering Beirut summer heat and inched down her face mask to take a long, much-needed sip of water.

Lebanon’s liquidity crisis is crippling the government’s ability to provide fuel, electricity and basic services. Daily life for the country’s rapidly declining middle class has been a struggle to secure gasoline to run generators during power cuts that stretch through most of the day.

For Arida, the priority has been acquiring gasoline for the generators in the basement, where the artworks are stored. The staff can work, if needed, in the heat. But just acquiring the fuel during a credit crunch has been a challenge. “Prices are skyrocketing, there are shortages, and even when we manage to secure suppliers, they want to be paid in cash. But there’s a liquidity crisis and so the task of getting fuel supply for the generators can be Titanesque,” she sighed.

Despite the difficulties, the renovation work has been meeting its phased deadlines and Arida hopes the museum will be opened in the spring of 2022.

As the first anniversary of the Beirut port explosion approaches, Arida is preparing for artistic tributes to two victims who were fans and “family” of the museum, she explained.

"On August 4, we will be in the street with the families of the victims to demand justice,” she said. “A few days later, we will install a garden swing on the premises in memory of little Isaac Oehlers, a two-year-old Australian boy who often came to the museum with his parents. We will also install a beautiful bench designed by Gaia Fodoulian,” she said, referring to a 29-year-old Lebanese designer who was also killed in the blast.

Fodoulian’s mother, Annie Vartivarian, the co-founder of Beirut’s Letitia Gallery has long been part of the museum “family”, Arida explained.

The two installations will be a poignant reminder of the human loss endured that fateful day and the wreckage it has inflicted on the city’s heritage and cultural life. "One year later, nothing’s changed and everything’s changed – but for the worse,” said Arida. “The cultural sector can contribute enormously to the advancement of society and enable the Lebanese to dream and reflect. But it cannot perform miracles. If the country continues to drift, without perspective and without justice, the cultural sector and its actors will also slide into the abyss."

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