To recreate the stained glass windows that were the hallmark of Beirut’s Sursock Museum before it was destroyed by the port explosion last year, the artist carefully cuts small pieces from yellow and red glasses.
Conservators are hunched over using magnifying glasses and fill the paint lines caused by the explosion using their brushes. They then weave thread by thread under a microscope. Others delicately reassemble broken pieces of ceramics.
It has been difficult to see my 30 year-old work on the ground back to sand. It is essential to rebuild the museum,” stated Maya Hussaini. She was the artist who worked on the stained glass windows during the major renovation of the museum in 2015. Now she is rebuilding them.
She said, “I had to go back into my archive to dig up my designs to get it back to the way it was.”
Sursock, 60 years old, was perched high in the hills of Achrafieh just hundreds of meters from Beirut Port. He was the heartbeat of Beirut’s creative scene. It is the country’s only modern museum of art and houses a large collection of Lebanese artwork dating back to late 1800s.
It has been a place of refuge for the public, and a free space for artists since its inception.
After the port explosion of Aug. 4, 2020, the museum was destroyed, artists and restorers have tried to reclaim that role.
The three-story building was smashed by the explosion, causing the doors to fall off and destroying everything below the fourth underground level. The windows were shattered, as well as the stained-glass windows on its façade. The art collection was severely damaged.
The museum’s 130 pieces were broken or damaged in the worst cases. This includes the portrait of Nicolas Sursock by Kees Von Dogen, a Dutch artist. In the blast, the nearby landmark Sursock Palace, a 19th-century building that is one of the most iconic buildings in the capital Lebanese, was also destroyed.
Beirut was devastated by the massive explosion. It also left a lasting scar on the vibrant creative scene that made the Mediterranean city so famous. Many of the smaller, independent art spaces were in the most affected areas.
Numerous galleries and private studios were damaged. Some galleries and private studios, already in a severe economic crisis, were forced to close their doors.
The Sursock Museum was hit even more hard by the fact that it had just completed a decade-long expansion and modernization project in 2015.
Zeina Arida is the museum’s director. She stated, “At first we were overwhelmed by the reality and extent of the damage.”
Teams cleaned the museum for three months of dust and chemical particles. Next came the art restoration. All was restored in Beirut except for Nicolas Sursock’s portrait. Two other pieces were flown to Paris for specialist treatment.
One year later, builders had installed windows, ceilings, doors, and are now reinstalling lights and dividers.
The museum was brought back to life by broad and rapid support.
Nearly 80% of the $3 million restoration budget was raised by the museum through the French and Italian governments, the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (UNESCO), private donors, and local groups.
This was an enormous feat for a country that had to deal with the explosion, financial crisis, and restrictions from coronaviruses.
The economic crisis was a significant obstacle.
Arida stated that it had been two years of intense stress and that the challenges she faces are changing. Arida had to cut the museum’s hours in order to make money before the explosion.
Banks have restricted depositors’ access and limited withdrawals from currency accounts since late 2019.
The museum was able to raise funds abroad in order to purchase basic materials and supplies. The museum’s management still needed to find a way to obtain funds from the domestic market. The museum, like many others in the country, is having trouble securing fuel for its air conditioners. These are essential for storage and restoration workshops.
Although the economic and security environment remain uncertain, the museum plans to reopen in spring 2022. The museum’s garden has been host to concerts and dance performances in recent weeks.
Many artists and other professionals in need of work felt the last straw when the explosion forced them to seek out opportunities overseas.
Arida stated that the exodus brings with it a new responsibility: the need to create new programs and fund new programs to keep those who stayed.
“We must rebuild the entire sector. She stated that the museum would not be the same without other organizations and without… the surrounding heritage buildings.