From ashes and destruction, and following a spectacular renovation, Beirut’s beloved Sursock Museum opens its doors once more.
Crowds gather outside the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum in Beirut. There are many smiles and even a few happy tears. Just under three years ago, the historic white structure with its Venetian and Ottoman stylistic references, intricate colored stained glass windows, and grand staircase lay in ruin following the Beirut port explosion of August 4, 2020. On that day, several thousand tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the city’s port, causing death, injury, and destruction. But now, throngs of Lebanese stand joyfully in front of the building, its handsome grand architecture glimmering again. Live music by a Lebanese orchestra and singers commemorate the occasion – these days, it’s one of very few celebrations in Lebanon’s capital. While the Sursock Museum’s new polished structure and gallery halls shine in triumph, outside, stark signs of poverty line the streets, which are also peppered with fancy new restaurants where the Lebanese and foreigners eagerly enjoy the moment. Lebanon, still in the pits of dark economic and socio-political demise, is a country of contradictions. Despite its ongoing woes, the museum’s renewal is an opportunity to celebrate and rejoice in triumph.
“We have miraculously reopened,” Karina El Helou, the director of the Sursock Museum, declares. El Helou took the reins just over six months ago from the museum’s previous director, Zeina Arida, who now heads the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha. Arida had begun raising funds for the museum’s reconstruction after the blast. “The massive destruction we saw on August 4 was the most [devastating] we’ve ever seen,” she added. “We have survived and continue to do so but nobody can go through this unharmed. This trauma keeps us in the crisis and focused on solving problems in the present,” she explains. “It was very challenging at first to start imagining something new – even projecting the opening of the museum was hard because we had to look to the future; we had to find hope.”
Beirut’s largest and oldest independent cultural institution was once the center of the city’s cultural life during the 1960s. Originally built as a private villa in 1912 on a hilltop that looked onto the city’s Achrafieh neighborhood, its owner was the prominent Lebanese art collector Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock, who bequeathed his home to the Lebanese people. It became a museum for modern and contemporary art after his death in 1952.
The Sursock’s reopening symbolizes a newfound confidence among the Lebanese – even if it is one that is hard to maintain. The museum’s longtime architect, Beirut-born Jacques Aboukhaled, explains how extensive restoration work had to be carried out throughout the museum. This is found particularly in the wooden stained glass windows dating to 1912 most likely made by Maison Tarazi, a company set up in 1862 specializing in oriental style and design. The Salon Arabe, which includes specific pieces like the 19th-century oriental woodwork from Damascus and Aleppo that Nicolas Sursock originally brought with him to Beirut, also required substantial rebuilding. The glasswork throughout the museum was restored by Lebanese master glassmaker Maya Husseini. Everything, explained Aboukhaled, needed to be fit together piece by piece, like a puzzle. Restoration was completed by both Lebanese and foreigners, and cost just under $US2.5 million, all of which the museum itself raised. No money or support was provided by the Lebanese government.
Post the blast, the museum raised a total of $2 376 751, of which $2 086 031 came from grants; $58 231 from institutions; $152 591 from fundraisers; $40 000 from corporations; and $39 897 from individual donations. These include the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH), which allocated $500 000 as an emergency relief grant, the French Ministry of Culture with a grant of $500 000, Agenzia Italiana per la Cooperazione allo Sviluppo (AICS), and Unesco Li Beirut that allocated a grant of one million dollars as its biggest involvement in Lebanon. The restoration partners also included the Beirut Museum of Art (BeMa) and Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al-Khalifa, president of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, who raised $98 231 for the benefit of the Museum on behalf of the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage, among other entities.
Inside the museum’s new sleek gallery spaces, which are free and open to the public, are gems from its Lebanese art collection dating from the late 1800s to the present. These include Fouad Debbas’ library of 30,000 photographs from across the Levant, spanning Turkey to Egypt, shot from 1830 through the 1960s, and the work of renowned painter George Corm. The collection is also closely connected to the history and evolution of the annual juried Salon d’Automne in Beirut. Open to artists based in Lebanon, it began the year of the Sursock Museum’s inauguration in 1961, when the private villa became the first and still the only public museum of modern and contemporary art in Beirut.
Je Suis Inculte! The Salon d’Automne and the National Canon is one of five exhibitions now on at the Sursock Museum that revisits the legacy of the annual salon and the artworks acquired for the museum’s collection thereafter. On view are pieces by major artists who participated, including Shafic Abboud, Etel Adnan, Assadour, Daoud Corm, Paul Guiragossian, Jean Khalife, Hussein Madi, Jamil Molaeb, Omar Onsi, and Aref el Rayess. Other exhibitions spanning modern and contemporary Lebanese art include Beyond Ruptures: A Tentative Chronology exploring three periods of the museum’s history through art with a special focus on how local socio-political events influenced the works of prominent Lebanese artists, including Akram Zaatari, Aref el Rayess, Jean Khalife, and Shafic Abboud, among others. Earthy Praxis, a group exhibition of works by contemporary artists Marwa Arsanios, Sabine Saba, and Ahmad Ghossein reflect on land appropriation and ownership in Lebanon; Ejecta, by Zad Moultaka, a large-scale single-channel stereo sound and video work transforms digital images of every artwork in the museum’s permanent collection into pixel-like fragments that erupt on walls. Lastly, Beirut Recollections, a photographic exhibition that stages images from the Fouad Debbas collection and the Paris-based platform Iconem, looking to provide creative solutions to the world’s cultural monuments and heritage sites that are damaged due to conflict and climate change. The work explores interventions that changed the way a city like Beirut is viewed and experienced.
The museum’s reconstruction follows a seven-year costly renovation project launched in 2008. It had reopened in 2015, only to be broken down again five years later as an enormous blast wave was sent across the city. The explosion severely damaged not only the architectural structure and design of the museum but also over 50 artworks. All of which have since been restored by a team of Lebanese and foreign artists, including two paintings – Untitled (Consolation), 1970 by Paul Guiragossian; and Portrait of Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock, circa 1926-1930, by Kees Van Dongen – brought back to life by a team at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The works are now back at the Sursock and on view for all to see. “We are more than just a museum,” El Helou remarks. As Lebanese journalist Rana Najjar offers: “This museum symbolizes our healing. Art heals us. It shows us that there is a future – a way forward.”
Originally published in the September 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia