Beirut’s Sursock Museum reopens three years after port blast

The palatial modern art museum was badly damaged in the explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital.

A view of the exterior of the white palace housing the Sursock Museum
Nicolas Sursock gave his palace to the city of Beirut before his death in 1953 [Mia Alberti/Al Jazeera]

Beirut, Lebanon – There is a secret hiding in the portrait of Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock, a secret that only a sharp eye can spot: a minuscule line that marks the spot where the canvas was ripped by debris from the 2020 Beirut port explosion.

It hangs at the recently reopened Sursock Museum, the first modern art gallery in the Arab world, which reopened its doors on May 26, three years after the explosion.

Much like the portrait, originally painted in the late 1920s by Kees van Dongen and one of the few restored in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the museum looks as good as new.

Jacques Aboukhaled, the museum’s longtime architect, walks through the building, pointing out the extensive restoration work from the ceilings and panels that were mangled to the invisible but vital air conditioning and electrical systems as well as the elevators and skylights.

In total, 57 artworks were damaged and meticulously restored by a team of Lebanese and foreign artists. All the pieces in the museum, including the dozens in storage, had to be carefully cleaned by specialists.

‘Put together like a puzzle’

Some of the original elements of the palace dating back to 1912 could not be replaced. Others, like the intricately carved wood panels, had to be “put together like a puzzle”, says Aboukhaled, who knows the museum like the back of his hand.

A damaged hall in the museum
The museum’s beloved stained glass actually helped save the Sursock Museum’s structure when the port explosion shattered it, the museum’s architect says [Courtesy of Sursock Museum]

“The windows were blown off completely, all the stained glass, everything,” Aboukhaled tells Al Jazeera, adding that the colourful glass, one of the building’s most prized elements, actually saved the museum’s structure.

“When the explosion came, it was like a suction, so it blew off [all the stained glass], which allowed the building to breathe,” he explains.

This was not the first time the museum has been impacted in recent decades. It has closed and reopened four times since art collector Nicolas Sursock’s residence was turned into a museum in 1961.

Aboukhaled, who first got involved with the museum when he was just 16 years old, says not even the civil war damaged the building as much as when 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at Beirut’s port exploded.

Some of the museum’s first visitors, Kate and Farid El Khazen, a couple in their 70s from England and Lebanon, gave high marks to the restoration.

“I never expected to find such a wonderful thing in Beirut. I’m Lebanese, but I never thought this existed,” Farid tells Al Jazeera.

“It’s a very important thing to keep going forward after something so horrific as the explosion. Art is always good for the spirit,” Kate says.

At the entrance of the building, a plaque acknowledges all the institutions and individual donors who financed the $3m project. Among them are the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas, the French Ministry of Culture, the Italian government and UNESCO.

A restored hall in the museum
Some of the wooden panels had to be ‘put together like a puzzle’, Aboukhaled says [Mia Alberti/Al Jazeera]

But one entity is absent from that list. Aboukhaled says official support from the Lebanese government was “zero, as usual”.

When Sursock offered his palace to the city of Beirut before his death in 1953, a decree was signed to allocate 5 percent of all taxes from construction permits to the museum. In the past, this was enough to pay, for example, for a $13m extension in the mid-2000s. Now, with Lebanon’s financial crisis and currency crash, this endowment represents less than 1 percent of the museum’s annual budget.

As international money came in for the museum, so did criticism over the lack of funding needed to rebuild houses, water systems and government buildings instead.

How important is art?

Flora Jacobson, 29, a visitor from Denmark, found the museum impactful and emotive, but there was another side to her experience.

“It’s also a bit contrast to everywhere else. It’s beautiful and good because cultural heritage, it’s important, … but I guess there are also important things that need attention and investment,” she tells Al Jazeera.

Director Karina Helou is no stranger to criticism, and she has not been immune to doubts herself.

“People tell you art is not something that is useful, [that] in times of crisis, we should concentrate on other priorities. I was afraid that they were right,” she says.

a view out of the museum's arched gallery
It took many foreign donors and three years to repair the explosion’s damage [Courtesy of Sursock Museum]

Helou, born in Lebanon, was working in Paris as an independent curator when the blast happened. After 20 years abroad, the explosion brought her back.

“It was like Medusa, like this petrifying moment. And instead of being petrified, I decided I needed to heal myself through action. Anger can bring a lot of force, and I think I was angry when I took this job, which gave me a lot of force to pursue this, and I’m happy I did because it was much needed to be here.”

Four thousand people visited the museum on its reopening day. Since then, 500 visitors have been coming every day.

The five exhibitions selected for the reopening were not chosen at random. Curated by and featuring mostly Lebanese artists, the works tell the history of the palace, the museum, the art it has housed and the city it calls home, chronologically unfolding it from the 1960s to the present time, from the top floor to the underground level, using a range of media from newspapers and photographs to advanced multimedia pieces.

Zad Moultaka’s immersive audio-visual installation was Selena Havalgian’s favourite. The work combines the projection of pixel-sized images of all the museum’s artwork with the sound of a distant rumble and wind chimes that transform into broken glass – a sound that has become the symbol of the trauma caused by the explosion for many Beirutis.

Aya and Firas sitting in the Salon
Aya and Firas came back to the Salon Arabe to take it in ‘quietly’ [Mia Alberti/Al Jazeera]

“When I saw it, I talked to the artist, and he said that the way to cope with the Beirut blast is not to forget but not to stay trapped, a way to move on, to take this bad thing and turn it into art,” the 19-year-old receptionist tells Al Jazeera in between giving directions to Tunisian visitors.

However, the work at the Sursock is not done. It is an independent cultural institution in a country that not only has a tradition of under-investing in culture and arts but is also going through a financial crisis, to which the museum is not immune.

Helou says the challenge now is to secure funding for the next five years, but the director is confident it will happen.

“The reopening was a sign of hope for everyone who had doubts about the situation in Lebanon, the need for culture. That was a big confirmation that these types of institutions need to survive. It’s better even in a time of crisis to have a place of hope and safety than to be closed just until life gets better,” she says.

Aya Hak and Firas Arouk, 20 and 24, agree. It is their second time at the museum. They came for the reopening night and wanted to come back to take in the place “quietly”.

Nicolas Sursock portrait that was damaged during the blast
The portrait of Nicolas Sursock was damaged in the blast and restored at the Centre Pompidou in Paris [Mia Alberti/Al Jazeera]

“I feel nostalgic,” Firas says. “I recover my old memories. It’s difficult to explain it, but I feel comfortable. When I sit here, … I forget every single hard time.”

Firas and Aya are sitting in the Salon Arabe, one of the two rooms from the original residence that were preserved. They point out the colours the stained glass reflects on the marble floors and admire the intricate carvings of the wood panels in the ceiling above – some other, smaller carvings revealed themselves, upon closer inspection, to be scars gouged into the panels by the explosion.

In the neighbouring room, the Beyond Rupture exhibition, curated by Helou herself, is a timeline of the museum’s 61 years of history, culminating in the blast.

CCTV footage of the moment of the explosion is part of the exhibit. In one of the videos, a museum employee is seen walking outside the main entrance just as the camera is severely shaken and dust starts whirling frantically everywhere. A few seconds later, a bride and groom run into the lobby, covering their heads.

Very much like that day three years ago, now, another groom and another bride are posing on the doorsteps of the palace, probably unaware of the fate of that other couple three years ago.

Nearby, hanging from a tree, is a wing-shaped swing honouring two-year-old Isaac Sydney Oehlers, one of the youngest victims of the blast.

On the other end of the museum’s garden, there is another memorial.

Down a flight of stairs that lead to an emergency exit, Aboukhaled points out a section of bent and mangled ceiling that was kept exactly as it was after the explosion.

“It’s important to keep something from this disaster,” he says. Although hidden away from visitors, this is a special place for the architect, his own personal way to honour what his beloved museum went through.

“The fact that I’m Lebanese, I’m happy to contribute, and this is what we have to do for our children and the next generations. I think this is important.

“To keep our heritage and our history, it’s important.”

Source: Al Jazeera