Beirut, Lebanon – “This is one of the best things that has happened to Beirut in a long time,” said Sarah Trad, as she gazed at oil paintings in Beirut’s newly reopened Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum.
“It’s a museum that’s from Beirut for Beirutis and with Lebanese artists, so it’s as local and homegrown as it gets,” added Trad. “It ‘s probably the first optimistic event we’ve had in a long time.”
Housed in an extravagant white Italianate-style mansion on one of Beirut’s most high-end streets, the museum – named after its founder, Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock, an aristocrat and art collector – opened its doors to the public on October 9 for the first time in eight years, allowing visitors to once more enjoy its unique collection of modern and contemporary art.
Sursock is the first of several new additions to Beirut’s cultural landscape, all set to bring new, much-needed life to a scene that previously comprised only a handful of small private museums and just one major public museum.
When it first opened in 1961, Sursock was a hub for debate and art, holding a Paris-style Salon d’Automne every year to give up-and-coming Lebanese artists the chance to debut their work. But the museum’s relevance faded during Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, and it eventually closed for mammoth renovations in 2008.
This is the first time there is a public initiative in order to create a project that is related to the memory. We went from a general amnesty to a general amnesia. We didn't do any work on the memory.
Youssef Haidar, Chief architect
Now, with a new underground space that quadrupled the building’s original size and a goal of bringing art to the masses, Sursock may become a major player once more. “It’s very exciting because the museum has been working for a while on this project,” said Zeina Arida, the Sursock Museum director.
“We’re very excited about the idea of finally sharing all of this work and the vision and the ambition the museum has with the public.
By the end of the year, the general public is also expected to be able to get inside Beit Barakat, an iconic apartment building pockmarked with bullet holes. The building was turned into a sniper’s den overlooking the strategic Sodeco intersection during the civil war.
Haunting and evocative, the crumbling skeleton of the half-Ottoman, half-art deco structure was scheduled for demolition until the Beirut municipality bought it in 2003 to turn it into a one-of-a-kind memorial museum, exhibition space, and research hub with the help of the French embassy and the Paris municipality.
But political instability in 2005, a war with Israel in 2006, and more internal strife in 2007-08 delayed the project.
So, it wasn’t until 2008 that work began, which included digging out a seven-storey subterranean archive space, adding a modern rear extension, and propping up the old building where necessary.
Despite all this, chief architect Youssef Haidar said the biggest obstacle to overcome was opposition from locals. “We had much resistance from people all around us, from architects saying this couldn’t be done, to civilians saying: ‘Why preserve these places? We should forget about all that,'” he told Al Jazeera with a mischievous grin as he gestured at the bullet-ridden walls of the space’s first storey, which he purposely kept almost exactly as they had been at the end of the war
“I have this approach which says that for me, this [building]is a kind of living being. It’s not just stones, and it has memory and history and so many layers. The idea was to preserve the layers – the traces. It’s a complex process … I had to convince everybody.”
Inside Story – Lebanon’s deepening crisis
Other countries that have experienced crushing civil wars, from Bosnia to Rwanda to Cambodia, have chosen to erect museums to help people confront the difficult, divisive parts of their history.
Beirut has remained bereft of any such place. So Beit Barakat, which has now been renamed Beit Beirut, will be a crucial contribution to the country’s almost non-existent reconciliation process.
“This is the first time there has been a public initiative in order to create a project that is related to the memory,” said Haidar. “We went from a general amnesty to a general amnesia. We didn’t do any work on the memory.”
As a result, both Arida and Haidar are eager for these very different museums to provide a public platform for people to reflect on their shared heritage – a common space for learning, contemplation and interaction.
“It’s really the idea of encounters between different social backgrounds, different profiles, and I think this is very needed,” Arida explained.
“We [the Lebanese] need to regroup, not to separate. We need to have a more global relationship to the city, not community-based [or] district-based.”
“Museums are a direct view to our history, to our patrimony, to all that we have,” added Haidar.
“They provide [a sense of ] … belonging to a cultural process.”
Yet the few museums that do exist in Lebanon often struggle to attract visitors, from the small and somewhat exclusive ones, like the Robert Mouawad Private Museum, to the huge and vaunted National Museum, home to an impressive collection of finds from nationwide excavations.
“People do go to museums when they are abroad, but sometimes, they do not know their own museums,” said Anne-Marie Afeiche, National Museum curator and head of the museums department at Lebanon’s culture ministry.
“So there is some work to be done to [be able to] say, ‘You have a beautiful museum [that] you should be proud of. You just have to knock on the door and come in – not even knock – it’s open!”
Although the National Museum sustained heavy damage during the war – it, too, was turned into a sniper’s
post – it reopened in 1999.
Its basement is now undergoing further renovations as part of an ambitious project funded by the Italian government to create an exhibition space dedicated to Lebanese funerary objects, many never displayed before, including Phoenician-era sarcophagi, a tomb covered in frescoes, and Mamluk-era mummies.
Afeiche is also working on another project: the Beirut City Museum – although it is unlikely to see the light of day for at least another five years.
Funded by Kuwait in collaboration with the real estate company Solidere and the Lebanese culture ministry, it will eventually provide a home for the city’s archaeological history. Today, Afeiche said Beirut’s museum scene has never looked better.
“You feel like people are longing for new museums and new galleries,” she told Al Jazeera, as she strolled between the museum’s various statues, frozen in acts of war and love.
“Beirut’s museum scene is booming. It’s fantastic – this means that Beirut is living.”