Dubai: The past can be a painful topic for many Lebanese. Between 1975 and 1990, a civil war devastated much of the country. The postwar period was marked by sectarian conflict and dysfunctional government.
But despite the trauma of recent decades, Lebanon remains a land of enormous cultural wealth, whose rich history is reflected in its architectural, cultural and anthropological heritage.
That’s why the Beirut Art Museum (BeMA), due to open in 2026, has been dubbed a “beacon of hope” in a country beset by political paralysis, economic recession and a worsening humanitarian crisis.
When Sandra Abou Nader and Rita Nammour launched the museum project, their goal was to showcase the broad diversity of Lebanese art and provide facilities for education, digitization, restoration, storage and artist-in-residence programs.
“They realised that, in fact, the Lebanese art scene is very low profile both at home and abroad, for Lebanese artists, both modern and contemporary,” BeMA’s art advisor Juliana Khalaf told Arab News.
The new venue will feature some 700 works of art, drawn from the Lebanese Ministry of Culture’s collection of more than 2,000 works of art, most of which have been stored for decades.
“We’re going to have this very important collection,” Khalaf said. “We call it the National Collection, and it belongs to the public. Our job is to make it accessible for the first time. It’s never been seen before.”
Created by more than 200 artists and spanning from the late 1800s to the present, these artworks tell the story of this small Mediterranean nation from the Renaissance and independence to the Civil War and beyond.
The collection includes work by Lebanese-American author, poet and visual artist Kahlil Gibran and his mentor, the influential late Ottoman master Daoud Corm, known for his delicate portraits and still lifes.
Works by Lebanese modernist pioneers such as Helen Khal, Saloua Raouda Choucair and Saliba Douaihy will also be featured in the collection, along with several lesser-known 20th-century artists, including Esperance Ghorayeb, who worked in the 1970s.
“This collection is a reminder of the beautiful heritage we have,” Khalaf said. “It shows us our culture through the eyes of our artists.”
One of the priorities of the BeMA team in collaboration with the Cologne Institute for Conservation Sciences is to restore the collection, which includes several paintings and works on paper damaged by war, neglect, improper storage or simply the passage of time.
Gathering information on artists and their influence on Lebanon’s artistic heritage is another priority for the BeMA team, a task that has proven challenging given the lack of publication resources and the means of cataloguing them.
* International Museum Day, held every year on or around May 18, highlights a specific theme or issue facing international museums.
“It’s amazing how little research there is and how much work we need to do in this area, like getting the right equipment that the country doesn’t currently have to properly archive books and photography,” Khalaf said.
In 2018, the BeMA team approached New York-based architecture firm WORKac for ideas for a new site. WORKac was 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 Conservation, who designed museums in California, Texas, New York and Florida.
For Andraos, who left Lebanon at the age of three, the opportunity to design a home for Beirut’s artistic heritage was especially special.
“I think it’s a very personal project for everyone involved,” she told Arab News. “Everyone thinks wholeheartedly that Beirut really needs a museum to house the national collection.
“Personally, I have a great attachment to Beirut, its history, its architecture, art and intelligence.”
Given the troubled and complicated identity of the country’s past, Andraos believes the museum’s collection will prove valuable in helping Lebanon rediscover its sense of self and recover from past trauma.
“It’s a dossier that we need to go back to to understand who we are and how we move forward,” she said.
The first stone was laid on the grounds of the new museum in February after the project was approved by the city government. The initial phase required Andraos and her team to examine the site’s archaeological remains.
When complete, the museum will feature three floors of galleries that draw on aesthetic elements of local Art Deco urban design. It has been described as an “open museum” and a “vertical sculpture garden” as its cubic facade will be dotted with greenery from top to bottom.
Andraos admits she was initially skeptical of the project. Lebanon is in the throes of multiple crises, including a financial collapse. The capital Beirut has yet to recover from a devastating explosion at the city’s port on August 4, 2020, when a warehouse full of highly explosive ammonium nitrate caught fire and detonated, razing the entire area.
All of this, combined with the additional economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, has caused thousands of young Lebanese to move abroad in search of work and a respite from a seemingly endless chain of crises.
For some in this country, however, it is precisely because of these issues that a museum celebrating Lebanese cultural achievements is needed, perhaps now more than ever.
“When I recently introduced the museum to BeMA board members, I said, ‘This is probably the worst time for a museum,’ and he said, ‘This is the most important time for a museum because we need culture, education and ideas,’” Andraos Say.
“It’s like art versus food when people are hungry – but in some ways art is also food for the spirit and the mind.
“Everyone involved sees it as a beacon of hope, and the country needs to build its institutions. It’s almost like a resistance to collapse. We have a history to cherish, reread, and a culture to maintain and grow.”
That’s not to say the project was well-received from the start.
“The museum doesn’t have a lot of public visits; it’s something that really needs to be developed,” Khalaf said. “In that regard, people felt it was an unnecessary project.
“But now that people actually see that this is a serious project and it’s happening, attitudes have changed. People are saying there are things to look forward to.”
About 70 percent of the project’s funding has been allocated to date, and a public appeal will soon be launched to fill any shortfalls. Entry to the museum will be free.
Located in a leafy, upscale residential area in central Beirut, known for its early 20th-century Art Deco architecture, the museum will stand on the “Green Line” that once separated east and west of the capital during the Civil War.
“The good thing about it now is that it could be the ‘museum mile’ because there’s the National Museum, the BeMA, the Meme, and if you go further down, you actually get to the Sursock Museum,” Khalaf said.
“It shifts the perspective from war-torn Beirut to culturally vibrant Beirut.”