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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 19 August 2018

The museums aiming to revive Lebanon’s reputation as a thriving arts hub

In recent years, due in part to economic woes, political turbulence and a dearth of state funding in the arts, Lebanon has struggled to keep up with the growth of the regional scene

Beit Beirut was designed to be a museum of memory. Courtesy Beit Beirut Museum
Beit Beirut was designed to be a museum of memory. Courtesy Beit Beirut Museum

Lebanon has long held the status of being the cultural hub of the Arab world, known for its dozens of annual arts festivals and vibrant gallery scene. Yet in recent years, due in part to economic woes, political turbulence and a dearth of state funding in the arts, it has struggled to keep up with the growth of the regional scene, particularly in the UAE, where state-funded museums affiliated with world-class institutions, such as Louvre Abu Dhabi and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, are attracting visitors from all over the world.

Change is in the air, however. The recent opening, re-opening or refurbishment of several museums in Beirut, coupled with plans for four art and archaeological museums set to open in the next five years signals a new phase in Lebanon’s cultural development.

National Museum of Beirut

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With significant excavations spanning the length and breadth of the country, Lebanon’s archaeological richness is one of its major tourist attractions. Small museums at sites including Baalbek and Byblos are complemented by the National Museum of Beirut, which houses a large collection of priceless artefacts from across the country, dating from prehistory to the end of the Ottoman Empire.

In October 2016, the museum reopened its basement, which had been closed for more than 40 years, since the Lebanese civil war. Refurbished with a €1.2 million (Dh5.1m) grant from the Italian government, the basement is now the highlight of the museum, housing a display of funerary art that includes a human tooth dating back 250,000 years, unique 7,000-year-old Phoenician marble sarcophagi and 13th century mummies from the Qadisha Valley.

Plans are underway to open an expansion, which will house a cafe and space for temporary exhibitions and workshops. Like many projects in Lebanon, the expansion is a result of a fusion between state and private initiatives. It is spearheaded by a charity, the Lebanese Heritage Foundation, which is raising funds for the addition and will oversee its direction once it opens.

Beirut History Museum

This is another major archaeological museum due to open in the next five years in Downtown Beirut. It will be housed in a glass building designed by the Pritzker-prize winning Italian architect Renzo Piano. Construction was originally set to begin in 2014, but was delayed after an important archaeological find on the land earmarked for the museum, which is located in Martyr’s Square, close to the ancient Phoenician settlement excavated in the late 1990s.

After three years of excavations, construction finally began this month. Minister of Culture Ghattas Khoury estimates that it will take three years, meaning the museum is likely to open in 2022, barring further delays.

Like the National Museum, it will display artefacts from archaeological sites across the country, but the role of the new museum is to tell “the history of Beirut across the centuries”.

Piano’s building will be surrounded by an “archaeological garden” that includes the excavated Phoenician port area. “It is glass so that it doesn’t close the view from Martyr’s Square to the Petit Serail, down to the sea,” says Khoury. Renderings from Piano’s office show a glass structure rising three stories up and descending four stories below the earth, with a viewing platform allowing visitors to gaze out over the excavations, set amid a paved pedestrian area.

The project is estimated to cost $70 million (Dh257m), excluding the value of the land. The Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development has donated $35m and a further $35m has been pledged by controversial Lebanese joint-stock company Solidere, responsible for the renovation of Downtown Beirut after the civil war.

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Sidon Archaeological Museum

In addition to this ambitious project, a second archaeological museum is under construction in Sidon, south of Beirut, encompassing an urban site that archaeologist Claude Serhal has been excavating for 20 years. The excavations, which have uncovered traces of civilisations from the third millennium BC to the Crusader period, will be part of the display at the new museum. It will feature a two-storey exhibition space displaying the most important finds from the excavation, built atop the 1,600-square-metre site, through which visitors will be able to walk on raised platforms.

The intention is to craft a journey through time, starting at the end of the fourth millennium BC and finishing in the Crusader period. Videos shot during the dig will reveal where significant finds were made and how they were excavated. As well as valuable objects, such as statues and jewellery, the museum will display objects that provide insight into the daily lives of the city’s ancient inhabitants, including calcified textiles from the second millennium BC and wheat and barley from 2,500BC.

The bones of animals found on site, including bears and hippopotamuses, reveal the hunting practises of people in the third millennium BC. “I’m trying to give it another dimension. You want to see what people ate, what they believed in,” Serhal says. “They get a sense of daily life and the cult and ritual … These sorts of stories are why I think it’s a completely different kind of museum, because we have 20 years of excavations there and we are telling a story.”

Construction was started several years ago but stalled after a shortfall in funding. An initial donation of $5m from the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development was recently supplemented with funding from the Ministry of Culture, which has allowed construction to resume. “We have now put in $2m from the ministry budget,” says Khoury. “We’ll put another $2m next year so maybe we can finish it.”

Beit Beirut

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In addition to the growth of the archaeological museum sector, two new private museum initiatives are set to augment Beirut’s art infrastructure in the coming years. They will join the Sursock Museum and Beit Beirut to provide a comprehensive set of art museums, each with its own mandate and focus.

Opened in September last year after a decade-long wait, Beit Beirut is located in a beautiful old mansion that was expropriated by the municipality in 2003 and renovated with more than $18m of public funds. Like the National Museum, it is situated on the former Green Line that divided East and West Beirut during the civil war and was used as a sniper’s nest during the conflict.

Beit Beirut was designed to be a museum of memory, a cultural centre and urban observatory dedicated to exploring the history and architecture of the city over the past century. Unfortunately, it has been marred by a series of controversies and delays. Temporary exhibitions have seen it open to the public sporadically since September last year, but it is currently operating more as an exhibition space than as a museum, with no director, no public programme and no permanent collection.

Nevertheless, it is one of the city’s most striking and unusual venues. The silent stories told by the scarred walls – combined with its state-of-the-art facilities and spacious exhibition spaces on the second and third floor – mean it has the potential to become Lebanon’s most important cultural institution.

Sursock Museum

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An example of the kind of leadership that Beit Beirut needs can be found in the rebirth of the Sursock Museum, which opened in October 2015, after extensive renovations that took seven years and cost roughly $15m. Since then, annual footfall has averaged 65,000 visitors, says the museum’s director Zeina Arida, making it one of Lebanon’s most visited cultural venues. Housed in an Ottoman mansion built in 1912 and donated to the city by its owner in 1952, the museum has a permanent collection of several hundred works by Lebanese and Arab artists, displayed on the upper two stories. The past two years have seen the acquisition of 264 new works, increasing the total collection by 35 percent. A busy programme of temporary exhibitions, tours, talks and workshops keeps visitors returning regularly.

The museum receives a percentage of the cost of all work permits issued within Beirut, making it a hybrid between a public and a private institution. As Lebanon’s only state-funded museum, it has a crucial role to play in appealing to a wide audience. “As someone who has been working in the non-profit sector for 25 years, I’ve always thought a lot about the importance of complementing each other, rather than competing,” explains Arida. “What defines a museum today is understanding the cultural and social environment and being able to reflect on it. Otherwise you are just walls with artworks inside … what’s also important is to continuously attract audiences, so you have to be a very active institution.”

Beirut Museum of Art

Inside the Beirut Museum of Art. Courtesy Beirut Museum of Art
The Beirut Museum of Art. Courtesy Beirut Museum of Art

Her words find echo in those of Rita Nammour, president of the Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon (APEAL), a non-profit NGO. Founded in 2008, it has been working since 2015 to establishing a major new venue called the Beirut Museum of Art (BMA).

BMA will showcase modern and contemporary art and already has a pool of over 3000 works that will form the basis of the permanent collection, most from the private collection of the Ministry of Culture, which will be placed in their care. It will also hold temporary exhibitions by local, regional and international artists.

“Museums today are not only guardians of a collection,” says Nammour. “Of course, keeping and showing the collection is very important, but the other part is that art can heal and challenge and it’s by delivering an extensive series of programmes, inside and outside the walls, that we are hoping to generate widespread engagement and interest.”

BMA’s public programme of community outreach has already begun. Several artists’ residencies in locations across Lebanon are contributing to a much-needed drive to decentralise the art scene and link institutions in Beirut with the rest of the country. APEAL has also collaborated with the Ministry of Education to launch art programmes in schools across Lebanon.

Nammour is confident that BMA will fill a niche in the existing art infrastructure in Lebanon. “It will complement what already exists in the city,” she says. “We want all communities in Lebanon to come and feel that it’s a space for them. The vision for the museum will continue to evolve in tandem with the society in which it sits, so it will have a style that will constantly be under review and formation.”

Lebanese architect Hala Warde, who also worked on the Louvre Abu Dhabi, won a competition to design the building, which will include an amphitheatre, a multipurpose event space and a three-storey exhibition space topped with a dramatic 124-metre tower, set amid a landscaped garden. The tower will be divided into a dozen 12-metre cubes, housing a library and artists’ residencies and space for temporary exhibitions, workshops and classes.

The museum will be located on a plot of land donated by Saint Joseph University, situated between the National Museum and Beit Beirut. Construction is set to begin at the end of 2018 and is estimated to cost in the region of $40 million. In the absence of any delays, the museum will be ready to open by 2022, says Nammour.

Beirut Arab Art Museum

A second private art museum is set to open in Beirut in 2020, in a purpose-built facility funded by the Dalloul family to house their extensive private collection, which includes more than 4,000 modern and contemporary works by Arab, African and Iranian artists. As well as showcasing the permanent collection, the Beirut Arab Art Museum will hold temporary exhibitions organised via exchange programmes in collaboration with international institutions.

“Education will be at the core of the Dalloul Art Foundation museum’s programmes,” says Basel Dalloul, the foundation’s managing director. “We will definitely be engaging our greater community with workshops, artists’ talks and cultural programmes. We also plan on reaching a global audience through the use of technology, which will include robust social media and VR programmes.”

With four new museums set to open by 2022 – barring delays – Lebanon’s cultural scene is about to experience a boom that will help cement its status as a regional arts hub. Despite shortages of funding and state support, these institutions play to its strengths and are likely to attract significant local and international interest.

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