In Beirut, the revival of the Sursock Museum

People attend the reopening of the Sursock Museum, in Beirut, Lebanon, May 26, 2023.

On the hill of Achrafieh, facing the port of Beirut, the scars of the explosion of August 4, 2020, which claimed the lives of more than two hundred and twenty people, have been gradually erased. Despite the economic crisis hitting Lebanon, the district is coming back to life, with its freshly restored colorful buildings, cafes and art galleries. The reopening of the Sursock Museum on Friday, May 26, after two and a half years of work, is a new milestone in this renaissance. “It is a beautiful moment of healing for those who have seen this destroyed museum. It is a symbol of Beirut and the survival of cultural life”greets its director, Karina El-Helou.

Since its opening in 1961, the Sursock Museum has been at the heart of Lebanese and Arab cultural life. The Lebanese art collector and philanthropist Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock had donated his mansion to the municipality on his death in 1952 to make it a free place. It was one of the first modern and contemporary art museums in the Arab world. Over the years, its collections have been enriched with 1,600 works by major Lebanese artists, such as Shafic Abboud, Paul Guiragossian and Jean Khalifé, as well as 12,000 archives on the history of art in Lebanon and in the region.

Located eight hundred meters as the crow flies from the port of Beirut, the institution suffered significant damage during the tragedy of August 4, 2020. “More than 70% of the museum structure was destroyed”, explains Karina El-Helou. The blast of the explosion destroyed everything in its path: the windows and stained glass, the doors and the roof, the elevators and the electrical system. More than
fifty-seven works were damaged. Thanks to the outpouring of international solidarity, the museum was able to raise more than 2 million dollars to finance the restoration work. Donors have had to urgently devise funding circuits to circumvent the Lebanese state, which is bankrupt and plagued by corruption.

Mystery Photo #22: Sursock Museum, Beirut

The Sursock Museum of Modern Art, in Beirut (Lebanon), whose stained glass facade was shattered by the explosion which, on August 4, 2020, devastated the city.

This photo was taken on August 8 at the entrance to the courtyard of the Sursock museum, in the Ashrafiyeh district of Beirut. The Museum of Modern Art is among the many cultural and religious sites hit by the explosion that devastated the city on August 4. Sursock is now an empty shell: its stained glass facade has been pulverized, its 1920 Arab living room disfigured and at least twenty works have been damaged.

The disaster also inflicted severe damage on the old quarters of Gemmayzé and Mar Mikhaël. Many vestiges of the architecture of the Ottoman era, with its houses with triple arched windows typical of the Lebanese capital, have been particularly affected, as an article recently published in The world. In total, no less than 8,000 buildings in the city are affected. On August 27, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) announced the holding of two conferences to raise funds for the benefit of Beirut’s architectural heritage, cultural world and schools.

International emergency aid

“We developed a crisis management model taking this complexity into account, and there was a great commitment from the General Directorate of Antiquities and civil society, a desire for integrity and solidarity. This is a fine example that Beirut sets in the field of heritage”, greets Valéry Freland, director of the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Zones (Aliph). Based in Geneva, the foundation was the first to release emergency aid to secure the museum’s roof and structure. The work was completed with funding from the Agenzia Italiana per la Cooperazione allo Sviluppo (AICS) under the LiBeirut initiative of Unesco.

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