Last week, Lebanon’s Sursock Museum opened its doors to the public for the first time since the Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020. Located in the Achrafieh neighborhood, slightly over half a mile away from the site of the blasts, the museum sustained severe structural and cosmetic damage from the devastating explosion that displaced more than 300,000 people, injured over 7,000, and killed at least 217, according to statistics from Amnesty International.
Per a 127-page report from a Human Rights Watch investigation, the explosion — considered to be one of the largest non-nuclear blasts on record — was caused by negligent storage of ammonium nitrate, an explosive chemical, as a result of years of mismanagement and corruption at the port.
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In an interview with Hyperallergic a day after the blast, former Sursock Museum Director Zeina Arida described the explosion as “incomparable to anything we have ever witnessed.”
“At first, we feared it was bombing, and that there would be more to follow, so we stayed in the building,” Arida said. “We quickly realized how great the damage was.”
In the aftermath of the port explosion, the museum was forced to close for nearly three years. It underwent repairs through LiBeirut, a UNESCO-led initiative to restore the Lebanese capital’s educational and cultural institutions damaged from the blasts. The nearly $2.5 million restoration project was supported with €1 million ($1,072,535) in funding from the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS), as well as assistance from other donors including the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH) and France’s Ministry of Culture.
On the day of the blast, the Sursock Museum had two main exhibitions on display that featured at least 126 works from the institution’s permanent collection and other pieces on loan from outside private sources. The museum reported that 32 paintings, 28 paper-based works, and six sculptures on display on the first and second floors of the building suffered the most damage, including tears from broken glass, stains, and significant paint loss. Other works on view had less extensive damage, mostly caked in a layer of dust from the blast.
Additionally, the institution’s historical Ottoman and Venetian Gothic architecture required extensive restoration, as the blasts from the port shattered all of the museum’s stained-glass windows, completely blew out the building’s metallic doors and dropped ceilings, and wreaked havoc on its white exterior walls and intricately carved wood-paneled doorways.
Formerly the 1912 villa of Lebanese aristocratic art collector Nicolas Sursock, the Sursock Museum is considered a beacon of Lebanese culture and history, holding over 1,500 paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and installations in its permanent collection. The museum is also home to the Fouad Debbas Collection, a photographic archive featuring over 30,000 photographs, postcards, and manuscripts from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Turkey as far back as 1830 until the mid-twentieth century.
The cultural institution reopened on May 26 with five galleries of classical and modern artworks on view. This is the fourth time the museum has reopened since 1961.
The Sursock Museum reports that it was able to recover 55 damaged works from its collection, the majority of which were repaired in-house through a meticulous restoration process beginning in May 2021. Three works — “Untitled (Consolation)” (1970) by Armenian-Palestinian artist Paul Guiragossian, “Portrait d’Odile Mazloum” (1967) by Croatian-born artist Cici Tamazeo-Sursock, and Dutch-French painter Kees van Dongen’s “Portrait of Nicolas Sursock” (circa 1926-1930) — were restored in Paris’s Centre Pompidou and returned to the museum in April 2023 after an extended restoration process.
In addition to the artworks, the restoration project involved replacing all of the building’s windows; repairing its doors, elevators, ceilings, and skylights; and installing a solar panel system to increase the museum’s energy sustainability.