Beirut begins to restore lost artworks with international assistance following major blast

A month after the devastating blast in Lebanon’s capital city, Beirut’s cultural institutions have begun the lengthy process of reconstruction.  

On 4th August 2020, 2,750 tonnes of unsafely stored ammonium nitrate detonated in a Beirut port warehouse. The explosion killed at least 180 people, injured over 6,000, left 300,000 homeless, destroyed buildings, and filled the streets with broken glass.  

Historic stained-glass restorer Maya Husseini witnessed two decades of her work shatter in seconds. “A big part of Beirut’s history is gone…but, no. Beirut will survive,” insisted Husseini. “I’ll do the same drawings, everything. It will be like nothing ever happened to it.”  

According to a report by the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH), at least 640 buildings with heritage status and eight museums were damaged by the explosion.   

Twenty-seven international museums and heritage organisations have since pledged to supply Lebanon with “cultural first aid” by forming a coalition, which includes UNESCO, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), and the World Monuments Fund. The Louvre and the Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities have also joined forces, sending staff to help co-ordinate the overwhelming number of restoration projects.  

The international community has sent a strong signal of support to Lebanon following this tragedy,” declared Ernesto Ottone Ramirez, Assistant Director-General for Culture at UNESCO.  

ICOM’s Heritage Protection Co-ordinator Elsa Urtizverea reported that Sursock Museum and its collection of modern art endured “unbelievable” destruction. The museum’s stained-glass windows that had already been restored by Maya Husseini following the civil war in 1975 have been completely destroyed again.  

The collection at the Archaeological Museum of the American University of Beirut suffered “some damage” as well, such as a broken vitrine that contained mostly glass artefacts.  

Artefacts ranging from prehistoric to the Ottoman period at the Beirut National Museum survived relatively intact. But the windows were entirely shattered, and the security system sustained heavy damage. “It’s a miracle the collections were preserved,” noted Suzy Hakimian, chair of ICOM Lebanon and Director of the Museum of Minerals at Saint Joseph University.  

ALIPH has now sanctioned US$5 million (£3.7 million) in funds for the recovery of Beirut’s heritage sector. “The funds will be spent in line with the principles of urgency, efficiency, coordination, and compliance with assessed local needs,” ALIPH stated on their website.  

The funding programme will initially give US$200,000 (£150,000) to the National Museum to restore its structure and protect the unguarded treasures as quickly as possible. “Thank God everybody is helping,” Hakimian remarked. “We hope to be able to bring back what was.”

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