The Sursock Museum in Lebanon has reopened to the public, three years after a deadly explosion in Beirut’s port – caused by tons of improperly stored chemicals – reduced many of his paintings and collections to ashes. Friday night’s reopening offered Beirut residents a rare bright spot in a country reeling from a crippling economic crisis that has left nearly three-quarters of Lebanon’s six million people in poverty.
Originally built as a private villa in 1912 on top of a hill overlooking the city’s Achrafieh district, this palatial residence combines Venetian and Ottoman styles. Its owner, famous Lebanese art collector Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock, bequeathed his beloved home to his people, to be converted into a museum of contemporary art upon his death in 1952.
The museum houses Lebanese art dating back to the late 19th century, including works by the distinguished painter Georges Corm, and the Fouad Debbas Library of 30,000 photographs – one of the largest private collections of photographs.
The images are from the Levant, a region of countries along the eastern Mediterranean, from Turkey to Egypt, from the 1830s until the 1960s.
In 2008, a seven-year project renovated and expanded the museum, relaunching it in 2015.
But the August 4, 2020 explosion in the port of Beirut – just 800 meters (875 yards) away – hit the museum completely from the front. Its stained glass windows were blown out, doors were shattered, and nearly half of the artwork on display was damaged.
The blast ripped through most of Beirut, killing more than 200 people and injuring more than 6,000.
Museum director Karina El Helou said the destruction was unprecedented, a level not seen even during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.
She continued that 70 percent of the building was badly damaged, as were 66 pieces of art out of the 132 on display. Shards of glass tore through Dutch artist Kees von Dongen’s portrait of Nicolas Sursock.
Two months after the explosion, the museum’s then director Wide ornament A fundraising campaign was launched, and damages were estimated at about $3 million at the time.
The museum eventually raised over US$2 million to restore the building and artwork with support from Italy, France, UNESCO, and various private organizations.
The restoration process was long and painstaking. Sursock’s portrait was taken to Paris, along with two other pieces, and restored there.
Experts from Lebanon and abroad flocked to the museum to collect damaged terracotta sculptures and repair scratches and tears that distorted the paintings.
Dust and debris from the blast has been carefully removed to bring back the splendor of many elements.
“The white powder from the explosion, which we saw everywhere in Beirut, reached our storage room, which is four floors underground,” El-Helw said.
She hopes the reopening will lift the spirits of many Lebanese amid the country’s economic collapse – and provide a “safe space” for free expression.
She added that art is now more important than ever. “In the face of darkness, (artists) fought through art and culture,” she said.
Dozens gathered in Sursock’s large, tree-lined city courtyard on Friday evening, amidst singing from a choir and band that played on the entrance steps for the reopening.
The museum, which looked much as it did before the explosion, was met with sighs of appreciation.
Others recalled how much Beirut has withered since then, and how dozens of artists left the country.
“I now hope that all of Sursock’s friends who may have left Lebanon at least in recent years will come back to visit us,” museum chief Tareq Mitri told the Associated Press as he welcomed the guests.
The Sursock Museum was not the only art venue damaged in the port explosion and has been restored in the years since.
The Harbor Projects, a gallery close to one of the port entrances, was eventually rebuilt and reopened. Others, like Saifi Urban Gardens, a family-run inn that over the years became a vibrant cultural center with art studios and exhibition space, have been gutted and permanently closed.
Without financial backing, many heritage buildings, including Ottoman-era houses built in the 19th century and damaged in the explosion, could eventually be sold to developers.
The cash-strapped Lebanese government has been unable to fund major restoration projects.
Mona Fawaz, a professor of urban studies and planning at the American University of Beirut, said the Sursock Museum’s ability to raise funds through its networks and management is a valuable lesson for others.
“I think it’s good to think of it as one of our rare success stories,” said Fawaz.
At the reopening on Friday, visitors can view five new exhibitions of classic and modern art – a testament to Lebanon’s artistic and cultural history and the perseverance of its people despite the country’s turbulent past.
One of the exhibits, titled “Ejecta”, is set in a darkened room where a video and audio recording reflects on the port explosion. Zad MoultakaThe artist behind the installation, said he hopes it will inspire people to turn their dark thoughts about that day into hope for the future.
“Throughout the days of the Civil War, we always found a way to get up,” he said.
“But my initial feeling after the explosion was doubtful. I wondered if we would be able to persevere after what happened,” Multaka added. “It is important today to take that violence and turn it into something positive.”


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