DUBAI: For many Lebanese, the past can be a painful subject. A civil war destroyed large swaths of the country between 1975 and 1990. The post-war period was marked by sectarian strife and government dysfunction.
But despite the traumas of recent decades, Lebanon remains a land of immense cultural richness, with a rich history reflected in its architectural, cultural and anthropological heritage.
That’s why the Beirut Art Museum, or BeMA, which is due to open in 2026, has been touted as a “beacon of hope” in a country plagued by political paralysis, economic decline and turmoil. worsening humanitarian crisis.
When Sandra Abou Nader and Rita Nammour started the museum project, their goal was to showcase the great diversity of Lebanese art and provide facilities for education, digitization, restoration, storage and curricula. artists in residence.
“They realized that there was, in fact, very little visibility for the Lebanese art scene, in the country and abroad, and for Lebanese artists, whether modern or contemporary,” Juliana said. Khalaf, BeMA art consultant, to Arab News.
Around 700 works of art will be exhibited in the new venue, drawn from the Lebanese Ministry of Culture’s collection of more than 2,000 pieces, most of which have been in storage for decades.
“We are going to house this very important collection,” Khalaf said. “We call it the national collection and it belongs to the public. It is our role to make it, for the very first time, accessible. This has never been seen before.
The works of art, created by more than 200 artists and dating from the end of the 19th century to the present day, tell the story of this small Mediterranean country from its renaissance and independence to the period of the civil war and the -of the.
The collection includes pieces by Lebanese-American writer, poet and visual artist Kahlil Gibran and his mentor, the influential late Ottoman master Daoud Corm, renowned for his sophisticated portraits and still lifes.
Works by pioneers of Lebanese modernism, such as Helen Khal, Saloua Raouda Choucair and Saliba Douaihy, will also feature in the collection, along with several lesser-known 20th-century artists, including Esperance Ghorayeb, who created several rare abstract compositions in the years 1970.
“The collection is a reminder of the magnificent heritage we have,” Khalaf said. “It shows us our culture through the eyes of our artists.”
Among the priorities of the BeMA team, in partnership with the Cologne Institute of Conservation Sciences, is the restoration of the collection, which includes several paintings and works on paper damaged by war, neglect, improper storage or just the passage of time. .
Collecting information about artists and their effects on Lebanon’s artistic heritage is another priority for the BeMA team, and it’s a task that has proven difficult given the lack of published resources and the means to catalog them.
“What was surprising was how little research was available and how much we need to do on that front, like getting the right equipment that is not currently available in the country to properly archive books and photographs,” Khalaf said.
In 2018, the BeMA team approached WORKac, a New York-based architecture firm, for ideas on the new venue. Co-founded by Dan Wood and Amale Andraos, a Lebanese-born architect and former dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, WORKac has designed museums in California, Texas, New York and Florida. .
For Andraos, who left Lebanon at the age of three, the chance to design a home for Beirut’s artistic heritage is particularly special.
“I think it’s a very personal project for everyone involved,” she told Arab News. “Everyone put their heart and soul into this idea that Beirut really needed a museum to house the national collection.
“For me, personally, I have a great attachment to Beirut, to its history, as well as to the architectural, artistic and intellectual level.”
Given the country’s troubled past and complex identity, Andraos believes the museum’s collection will prove invaluable in helping Lebanon rediscover its identity and recover from the traumas of the past.
“It’s an archive that we need to go back to, to understand who we are and how we’re moving forward,” she said.
After approval of the project by the city authorities, the foundation stone was laid on the site of the new museum in February. The initial phase requires Andraos and his team to examine the site for archaeological remains.
When completed, the museum will feature three floors of galleries that borrow aesthetic elements from local Art Deco urban design. It has been described as an “open-air museum” and a “vertical sculpture garden”, due to its cubic facade which will be embellished with bursts of greenery from top to bottom.
Andraos admits she was initially skeptical of the project. Lebanon is plagued by multiple crises, including a financial collapse. Beirut, the capital, has yet to recover from the devastating explosion at the city’s port on August 4, 2020, when a warehouse filled with highly explosive ammonium nitrate caught fire and exploded, leveling an entire neighborhood .
All of this, combined with the additional economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, has driven thousands of young Lebanese to move abroad in search of work and respite from the seemingly endless litany of crises.
For some people in the country, however, it is precisely because of these issues that a museum celebrating Lebanon’s cultural achievements is needed, perhaps more than ever.
“When I recently presented the museum to a BeMA board member, I said, ‘This is probably the worst time for a museum’, and he said, ‘This is the worst time. more important for a museum, because we need culture, education and ideas,” said Andraos.
“When people are hungry, it’s like art versus food – but art is also food, in some ways, for the mind and the spirit.
“All those involved see it as a beacon of hope and the country needs to strengthen its institutions. It’s almost like resistance to collapse. We have a history that deserves to be valued, reread and a culture that we must preserve and develop.
This is not to say that the project was well received by everyone initially.
“There is no great public attendance at museums; it’s something that really needs to be developed,” Khalaf said. “In that regard, people felt like it was a pointless project.
“But now that people see that this is a serious project and that it is happening, the attitude has changed. People say there is something to look forward to.
To date, around 70% of the funding for the project has been allocated and a public call will soon be launched to fill any shortfall. Admission to the museum will be free.
Located in the leafy, upscale residential neighborhood of Badaro in the heart of Beirut, known for its early 20th-century art deco-influenced buildings, the museum will stand on what was once the “Green Line” that separated the east and west of the capital during the civil war.
“The good thing now is that it could become the ‘museum mile’ because there’s the National Museum, BeMA, the Mim Museum, and if you go any further down you’ll actually come to the Sursock Museum” , Khalaf said.
“It changes the perspective from a war-torn Beirut to a culturally alive Beirut.”