In a Sea of Broken Glass, Beirut Museums Work to Preserve Their Antiquities

A year after the blast and with help from abroad, a cadre of talent restores the past

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In a Sea of Broken Glass, Beirut Museums Work to Preserve Their Antiquities
Gilbert Nicolas surveys the damage in the National Library, Beirut. Photo credit Simon Souaid

The main sound in the aftermath was the scrunching and sweeping of broken glass. The force of the blast in Beirut’s port last August, often claimed to be the biggest nonnuclear explosion in history, shattered glass up to 10 kilometers (6 miles) away and was heard 300 kilometers (186 miles) away in Cyprus. About 200 people were killed, many thousands injured and 300,000 instantly rendered homeless. Many Beirutis who remained in their homes were forced to cover their gaping window spaces with plastic or wood, as Lebanon had no means of producing enough glass itself, and given the economic collapse, the materials that were available were simply not affordable for most Lebanese citizens.

Individuals rushed in to fill the void of a paralyzed government, a government that through its incompetence and corruption allowed the blast to happen and one year later has failed to complete an official inquiry. The group Save Beirut Heritage responded immediately, worried that developers might move in, using the destruction as an excuse to clear valuable real estate for profit, something which thankfully did not transpire. Another organization, Live Love Beirut, also got to work, helping to protect properties as well as fundraising to deliver vital aid. And new organizations sprang up: Bebw’shebbek (door and window) was founded to get people back into their homes and supported by over 200 architects, carpenters, contractors, glaziers and painters. All were comprised of volunteers, sweeping up glass and cleaning the shops, bars and houses of the neighborhoods most affected, by chance the few remaining historic areas of Gemmayze, Achrafieh and Mar Mikhael.

“To see where you go for coffee with friends, where you go for a drink in the evening, all destroyed — you cannot imagine the destruction — it is so hard emotionally,” Lebanese architect Gilbert Nicolas said to me just a few days after the explosion, describing how he drove straight to one of his favorite buildings in Beirut, the Sursock Museum, an early 20th-century building and now the only institution dedicated to Lebanese art. “It’s one of the most beautiful buildings in Beirut,” he said. “I think it’s unique in the world, in the way it mixes Ottoman, Italian and Lebanese styles.” When he saw the damaged façade and shattered stained glass, he broke down in tears, scared to go in and see the damage to the original features as well as the collection itself.

Together with so many Beirutis, what Nicolas saw of historic Beirut on that day drove him to act, but he was focused on something specific. “I know it isn’t the most important thing,” he told me in the following days, “but we need to salvage what we can of the heritage.” The assistant director-general for culture at UNESCO, Ernesto Ottone, would agree with the urge but disagree as to its importance. Speaking on the BBC following the blast, he said: “Culture is important. … we cannot rethink or rebuild a city without taking into account whether you lost some of the identity, as this will affect the long term.” The areas affected not only housed historic homes and a vibrant social scene but also museums, galleries and universities, all of which suffered huge damage: On top of the human cost of the explosion can be added damage to Lebanon’s long historical record.

Nicolas put out the call for help in rescuing Beirut’s past, and within two days he was managing a team of over 40 people who named themselves “Rebuild Beirut’s Museums.” The team included individuals with all levels of education, different types of expertise, and varied in age and social and sectarian backgrounds. “I was dreading what was ahead and knowing I needed help,” Zeina Arida, the director of the Sursock Museum, told me many months later, thinking back to the day of the blast. “The museum staff is so tiny, and everything was open to wind, insects, looting — every kind of damage was possible.” But when she arrived at the museum at 8 a.m. the next day, she found “lots of young people, some really young, with brooms, coming to help. It was incredible.”

They began with the essential clearing of glass, cleaning the endless dust (which had been blown through the air vents of the museum and coated every object), and moving paintings and artifacts that had survived into safer storage in the basement, documenting all the damage as they went. They were living from one moment to the next, doing as much cultural first aid as they could while meeting with different international organizations who were all offering help. From NGOs dedicated to protecting cultural heritage such as Blue Shield International and the Dutch Prince Claus Fund, to organizations dedicated to museums and collections such as ICOM (International Council of Museums) and UMAC (University Museums and Collections), to national museums such as the British Museum, Centre Pompidou and Smithsonian Institution, the international community rallied around Beirut.

Volunteers Rhea Dagher (right) Lina Fakhoury (left) cleaning books in the Sursock Museum. Photo credit: Marie-Nour Hechaimé

In the Sursock Museum, a routine slowly emerged, with three separate groups of volunteers working in rotation, one of which was Nicolas’s team. One of the volunteers was Rhea Dagher, who arrived at the Sursock Museum a month after the blast. Despite being prepared for the damage given all the media reporting over the intervening month, she still found it shocking. “Even if you’ve seen images of the devastation, it’s still different when you’re on the ground. There were these very thick doors, supposed to be fire doors, which had been dislocated with such force that they had blown upwards and stuck to the ceiling — it really hits you when you see things like that.”

Dagher was put onto the campaign of dusting the book collection, working under library and archive officer ​​Rowina Bou-Harb. “They were packed tight within one shelf, with many old collectible items from the 18th or 19th century,” Dagher said, describing the books on the first floor of the museum. There were many more in storage, all of which needed dusting. Each required careful handling, and because of the vast quantity of dust produced, every single page had to be opened and cleaned. Such was the force of the explosion, and so close by, that fragments of glass were found even inside the pages of these tightly packed books.

Other volunteers worked in the storage area, where 2,000 artworks were hanging in a system of racks. Each artwork had to be cleaned with specialist equipment including specific types of vacuums and brushes, while the racks themselves had to be cleaned with cotton balls and wet cloths. “It would have taken years without these people,” Arida told me. “But more than that, it was a moral support to see people who cared so much, that even without money they had the motivation and energy to come and work every day. It really helped us all.”

Across the street is Sursock Palace, the main home of the Sursock-Cochrane family. Mary Cochrane was at home when she heard the first explosion. She moved to the balcony to try to see what had happened, only to be blown inside by the force of the second blast, right out of her shoes, crashing against a sofa with such impact that she broke her arm and ribs and punctured her lung. Left barefoot and unable to see through the cloud of black dust, she was unable to walk across the floors that were full of broken glass from the windows. When she finally managed to reach the local hospital, Saint George, it had suffered in the same way as her own home, and the staff was turning away the injured. Eventually she found treatment at a different hospital and made a full recovery, though her mother-in-law did not; Lady Sursock succumbed to the injuries sustained in the blast and died a month later, aged 98.

Amid the shock and grief, the family moved into the hastily adapted office of Mary’s husband, where they remain until today. Mary described visiting the palace once she left hospital, where she’d been for five days with no access to news. “It was totally overwhelming. From the street it didn’t seem so bad, but when you went inside, you could see the destruction. The whole ceiling had collapsed, the red tiles had been tossed about everywhere. Every shutter, window, door was destroyed.”

Initially, emergency help came from Aliph, a foundation dedicated to protecting heritage in conflict, which provided engineering expertise for the structural problems and funds for emergency structural support to prevent the north elevation from collapsing. Metal and other materials were donated by a local business, Naggiar, and Lebanese NGO Baladi along with the Prince Claus Fund helped install specialized plastic, called flex, over the windows in lieu of glass (which has still not been replaced, a year on). Mary described visitors from embassies, U.N. agencies and NGOs, all of whom commiserated with the family, but funds did not follow, possibly because of the palace’s current status as a private home, despite their valuable collection.

“It’s the largest Italian baroque collection in the Middle East,” Mary told me. “Two are attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi,” a 16th-century artist who has recently been receiving more attention, including a solo show at London’s National Gallery. One of these is on temporary loan, and the other is packed and ready to go to Italy to be restored and then shown in an exhibition in Naples. The family plans to open the palace as a private museum and cultural center but are caught in a Catch-22: There will be limited access to funding until they open, but they can’t open until they have enough money to restore the building and contents. As with so many other parts of Beirut, volunteers helped with the early stages of cleaning up, dusting, packing and photographing, Nicolas and his team among them. But without funds, and with only limited possibilities for fundraisers due to COVID-19 restrictions, the work is entirely on hold.

In nearby Hamra, the American University of Beirut’s (AUB) Museum of Archaeology was also carpeted in glass, but there was an added complication. “We couldn’t tell what was window glass, the glass from the display cases, and the glass of the [archaeological] objects themselves,” curator Nadine Panayot told me. One case had held 72 glass objects from Roman to medieval times. In some sort of miracle, two Roman goblets emerged intact, but the rest were unrecognizable, smashed into shards.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t feel anything,” Panayot says, trying to think back to the chaos of a year ago. “I was totally numb.” She defaulted to survival mode, calling contacts and appealing for help. The priority, as for people and institutions all over the city, had to be securing the building itself from cats (“AUB is overrun with them”), potential looters (at this point of the pandemic AUB was still largely empty because of a national lockdown, meaning thieves might go unnoticed) and the imminent autumn rains. Glass was still unavailable in those early days, so the staff used wood to secure all potential entrances; even the huge wooden doors of the museum had been blown apart, along with the fragile windows, and had to be remade from scratch, quickly.

During this first emergency stage, Panayot made an executive decision to leave the inside of the museum exactly as the blast left it, which drew some criticism after the event, but the decision was forced upon her. “We didn’t have the right material, and we had no way of accessing our money,” said Panayot, referring to the economic situation in Lebanon and the limit on cash withdrawals from the banks. “We couldn’t buy gloves or masks, or conservation-grade boxes and paper. … I didn’t have the tools to change my mind.” The display case housing the glass had fallen on top of the objects, protecting them to some extent, but any movement without expertise might make things worse, and “even most archaeologists are not necessarily expert in glass restoration.”

Instead of ploughing in, Panayot instead appealed to the international community, and they responded immediately, supplying everything on the lists of materials she asked for. In particular, Aliph provided funds, and INP (Institut national du patrimoine) sent vital materials and funded an expert glass restorer, Claire Cuyaubere, from France, who arrived exactly a month after the blast.

This response provided more than just material value. “Just someone listening to us and answering was already therapy for us — it gave us courage to move forward and gave us hope,” said Panayot, seeing the evidence when the restorer arrived and volunteers responded to the need. “Everyone was on their hands and knees picking up glass with the rest of us,” Panayot recalled.

On Sept. 7, the restoration work began. A team led by Cuyaubere started sifting through the glass, trying to sort out the thousands of shards to find the ancient objects among all the debris, a task that, at first, felt impossible to the volunteers. She treated the room itself like an archaeological site, noting where everything had fallen and what it was with, the evidence later contributing to the painstaking work of reconstruction of the objects.

For a week, Panayot’s team of volunteers were glued to the floor, sifting through the glass, using tweezers for the smallest fragments that could be found: “Your eye gets trained, slowly,” as one put it. After a week of round-the-clock work, boxes of fragments and shards had been assembled along with photographs and other archival evidence of the objects.

“By the end of the week, we all felt some sort of healing taking place, unconsciously,” Panayot recalled. “Somehow we felt that there was a meaning to what we were doing, there was hope for the future.” Incredibly, enough fragments had been salvaged to begin restoration work on some of the objects; a year on, 10 pieces have already been restored, with eight waiting to be shipped to the British Museum, and with the help of a group of interns, another one is looking possible. As Dagher put it: “The fact that shattered glass can be restored — I don’t want to be too clichéd, but it gives just a bit of hope. That something so delicate can be restored.” Of course, many were ground to powder in the explosion, and so Dagher’s feelings are mixed: “There are some objects, 2,000 years old, excavated intact, that remained intact throughout all the crazy and violent situations in Lebanon — and are now just gone.”

Another part of the museum at AUB presented a particular challenge; carpeted with glass just the same as the rest of the building, this room had something unique underneath — a Byzantine mosaic. Too delicate even for shoes, the team had to first clear the floor around the mosaic, and then work across it patch by patch, removing the glass from one part so they would have somewhere to step on safely, without shoes. This was a magical moment for Dagher. “Standing barefoot, for the first time in my life, on a Byzantine mosaic — it made me think of the people, 1,500 years ago or more, who had stood on it, I felt connected to them.” She was pleased to be telling a positive memory out of all the destruction. “Mosaics were made to be stepped on! Museums should have one that can be stepped on barefoot, so that everyone can feel this connection to history.”

Other restoration has given rise to hope. Glass artist Maya Husseini has spent the past 30 years restoring stained glass in Beirut that was destroyed during the civil war, only to watch all her work turn to dust in a matter of seconds. The Sursock windows alone took her a year to restore; incredibly, she patiently began again after the explosion. “Naturally I was heartbroken to see my life’s work shattered and blown to pieces, literally,” she told me, “but in that moment nothing mattered to me more than to rebuild what was broken, to restore my legacy.” She has spent this past year working on projects she had already completed once, finding a resource of “muscle memory” from the first time around, and now, a whole year later, new ones are finished, currently drying out before being installed. “As I have said throughout this whole experience, and I will say it once more, Beirut will rise again.”

Homegrown expertise was also available to Panayot from her colleagues at AUB. Engineers brought students and made 2D and 3D reconstructions of the artifacts from pre-blast images, so even objects ground to powder could at least be presented to the public virtually. In fact, the destruction has been an opportunity for academic research, as no one would ever dream of destroying an ancient object in order to do analysis: The shards presented an opportunity for new types of research. “Today it’s considered a case study,” Panayot said, describing a workshop scheduled for the fall that will pull together all the lessons learned over the past year, from understanding ancient materials better to contributing to museum research on cultural first aid. “I’m happy something so positive is coming out of all this,” she said.

There are many discussions in heritage circles about whether restoration is actually the right path at all, or whether the object’s whole history, including the destructive parts of that history, should be how the object is viewed in the present. In restoring the stained glass of the Sursock museum for the second time, Husseini consciously aimed at re-creation: “I made sure all the stained glass for all my ruined projects were remade identically to what was lost, so that nothing will erase what has happened and what the people went through.” But there are other choices that could be made.

Arida was presented with such a decision when considering what to do with two ceramic pots created by the Lebanese artist Simone Fattal, which were smashed in the explosion. Fattal herself had been approached by an artist to create a new work of art out of the fragments, but at the same time Arida was offered help by expert restorer Natalie Hanna. Arida talked to Fattal, explaining that the objects were precious to the museum, and they would prefer to restore rather than have another artist involved. Fattal agreed, and Hanna (whom Arida described as “a magician”) set to work, documented in a time-lapse video, which will be displayed alongside the pots when the museum reopens. They look the same, but a trace of the explosion has been left: One of the long names on the pots is no longer straight. “It’s very subtle, but the explosion has left its mark,” as Arida put it.

As with so much other work, Hanna gave her time for free, joining the other countless volunteers who wanted to save as much of Lebanon’s history as possible. As Dagher said to me: “Even if they would have offered, I wouldn’t have accepted. I don’t think any one of us would have.” So what was her motivation? At first, Dagher struggles for words. “There’s a bigger part, a bigger picture. … it was all about trying to collectively heal the city.”

A deep love for Beirut was evident across all these efforts to rescue the past and heal the city. “Beirut isn’t just in our blood, it’s embedded in our DNA,” said Panayot. For Nicolas, this love underpins his life: “Beirut is the reason I became an architect in the first place.” Heritage is one thing that Lebanese can unite on, across all divisions in society; indeed, it is precisely the past that gives a shared identity, a meaning to being “Lebanese.” For Panayot, this is a guiding principle, a motto that she drills into her students: “I believe that heritage is what truly binds us together, that gives a sense of meaning to our lives,” she told me, something that is particularly necessary in this fractured country. “This is what Lebanese people miss, common ground for a common identity — how can you put 18 confessions into a single identity? This can’t happen through religion, but it can with heritage, something we truly have in common.”

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