Lebanon represented the Arab world’s cultural hub, through its various “annual arts festivals and vibrant gallery scene”. However, in recent times, due to the country’s economic instability, coupled with political upheaval and a lack in state funds to support arts, Lebanon was left behind in this field. As Lebanese cultural heritage gathered dust behind closed doors while others like the UAE flourished with “state-funded museums” with the affiliation to “world-class institutions”, namely “Louvre Abu Dhabi and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi”. These architectural and arts centres have beckoned tourists from across the globe.
However, changing times are upon Lebanon, as recently Beirut city has seen several museums being inaugurated, refurbished or re-opened, while the plans of building “four art and archaeological museums set” in the coming five years is signal towards a “new phase in Lebanon’s cultural development” to revive Lebanese cultural heritage.
Lebanon has winessed significant excavation expeditions all over the country, whereby reinforcing its “archaeological richness”. The National Museum of the country, based in Beirut, complements the small ones present in the excavation sites. The former features “a large collection of priceless artefacts” obtained from all over the country which ranges from “prehistory to the end of the Ottoman Empire” time frame.
After a spell of forty years, in 2016, the locked doors of the National Museum re-opened whereby leading the visitors to its basement. The government of Italy had provided a grant of “€1.2 million” for the refurbishing cost. Among the artefacts displayed in the basement are “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”.
Furthermore, there are plans of expanding the museum to house “temporary exhibitions and workshops” space besides a cafe area. With the expanding Lebanese cultural heritage drive through various projects, private and state initiatives are coming together in the country. The “Lebanese Heritage Foundation”, a charitable organisation has taken up the responsibility of “raising funds”.
Taking the Lebanese cultural heritage revival drive forward, Beirut History Museum too is set to open in the coming five years. This museum also holds “major archaeological” assets which will be displayed in “a glass building designed by the Pritzker-prize winning Italian architect Renzo Piano”. Besides exhibiting the archaeological richness of Lebanon, the new museum will have the task of recounting “the history of Beirut across the centuries”.
The building, thus designed by Piano, will be enclosed within an “archaeological garden”, while Khoury added:
“It is glass so that it doesn’t close the view from Martyr’s Square to the Petit Serail, down to the sea”.
The new museum construction has an estimated cost of “$70 million”; however, the land value is not included in the above mentioned price. Among other museum construction projects, there is also the one located in Sidon which encompasses “an urban site” excavated by “archaeologist Claude Serhal”. The excavations that are going for the past two decades have “uncovered traces of civilisations from the third millennium BC to the Crusader period”. Interestingly, the museum space will also “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”.
These projects aim to create a “journey through time” which will take to visitors travelling from “the fourth millennium BC” end till the Crusader period. Objects displayed in the museum will provide a sneak peek into the “daily lives of the city’s ancient inhabitants”. While, in an attempt to provide yet another dimension to the experience of travelling back in time, Serhal said:
“I’m trying to give it another dimension. You want to see what people ate, what they believed in. 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.”
Informing on the financial aspect of the project, Khoury said”
“We have now put in $2m from the ministry budget. We’ll put another $2m next year so maybe we can finish it.”
Additionally, Lebanese cultural heritage will also been sheltered with “two new private museum initiatives” which will merge with “Sursock Museum and Beit Beirut”. The latter is located in the “former Green Line” which separated “East and West Beirut during the civil war”. Designed as a “museum of memory”, the scarred walls of Beit Beirut recount “silent stories”. Although, various reasons have delayed the museum to operate in full swing, it holds the “potential to become Lebanon’s most important cultural institution”.
The Director of Sursock Museum, Zeina Arida explained:
“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. 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.”
Echoing Arida’s words, the President of “the Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon”, in short APEAL, Rita Nammour added:
“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.”
With confidence, Nammour also informed that:
“It (Beirut Museum of Art, in short BMA) will complement what already exists in the city. 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.”
Beirut Arab Art Museum is another “private art museum” which is likely to be inaugurated in 2020 in the city of Beirut. It is being funded by the “Dalloul family”. In the words of the Managing Director Basel Dalloul:
“Education will be at the core of the Dalloul Art Foundation museum’s programmes. 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 these new initiatives to revive Lebanese cultural heritage, the country could see booming sector as a “regional arts hub”.