We talk often about the archaeology and artifacts, excavations and publications, but little do we hear about the museums that house these wonderful pieces of history. A Lebanese friend of mine recently told me of a restoration effort that I had never even heard of before and is an interesting story of what can be achieved even after devastation and vandalism.
The Beirut National Museum has been through a lot in its relatively short history. This museum is the principal museum of archaeology in Lebanon and is one of the most significant Near Eastern museums of archaeology because of its rich collection which is even more impressive because of the trials this collection has suffered. The idea for the museum was conceived in 1919 with its foundations in the collection of the French officer Raymond Weill who was stationed in Lebanon. In 1923 an official founding commitee was set up called the ‘friends of the museum committee’ which was headed by the then Prime Minister and Minister of Education and Fine Arts, Bechara El Khory. Work began with the work of architects Antoine Nahas and Pierre Leprince Ringuet and the building was completed in 1937 in the area of the Beirut Hippodrome.
While the opening was postponed because of the lead-up to WW2, the museum was finally opened in May 1942 by President Alfred Naqqache. It housed objects from prehistory all the way to the 19th century AD including large sarcophagi, mosaics and smaller collections of artifacts including jewelry, coins and ceramics. For the first 30 years of its operation, the museum added extensively to the collections through excavations undertaken under the direction of the Directorate General of Antiquities.
With the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, the museum closed its doors in 1975 with the situation in decline and the buildings located on the demarcation line which had divided Beirut. The museum and its antiquities thus became a victim of the raging war. Originally the authorities intended the closure to be temporary but this closure ended up being full term. But instead of allowing the antiquities to fall victim to total destruction, the authorities took action.
The first protection measures were undertaken in the periods of truce which alternated with the destruction. Firstly the smaller finds and most vulnerable objects were removed and placed in storerooms in the museum’s basements and were walled up so that no access was possible to the lower underground floors. The mosaics in the floors of the museum were also covered in a layer of concrete and large unmovable objects such as sarcophagi and statues were protected by sandbags. However, with the situation further worsening, in 1982 these sandbags were replaced by concrete cases which were built around wooden structures that surrounded the monuments. It was measures such as these which eventually saved a vast majority of the artifacts and monuments in the museum.
When cease-fire was announced in 1991 the museum was in a state of extraordinary destruction. Water flooded the basement levels and poured from the roofs and windows. The outer walls were covered in shots and shell-holes and the inner walls were covered in graffiti left by the militia who used the museum as a barracks. The flooded basements left many artifacts beyond repair, and shellfire had left many documents and 45 boxes of archaeological objects destroyed alongside all the lab equipment. In 1992 the first plans to restore the museum were set out by Michel Edde the then Minister of Culture and Higher Education. But the initial proposal was turned down because of the state of the building leaving it in danger of looting. But once the doors and windows were put in with the help of private donations, the concrete barring the basement was removed and the restoration could begin.
The restoration work continued through 1995 to 2000, starting on the building itself and inventory, recording and restoration of objects. This was made possible through the work of the Ministry of Culture, the Directorate General of Antiquities and the National Heritage Foundation. In 1997 the doors reopened to the ground floors but then closed again in 1998 for modifications and modernisation. The museum reopened again in 1999 with over 1300 archaeological artifacts on display. The rehabilitation continued on the underground galleries but already the museum was returning to its former significance especially as a leading collector of Ancient Phoenician objects. The museum is now under the directorship of Anne-Marie Ofeish and retains many of the artifacts which were originally packed away and successfully saved.
Human history is full of wars and conflicts and artifacts and archaeology often suffer in the process which is a great shame. Through efforts such as those undertaken in this case we are lucky to see such wonderful artifacts survive.
For further information:
Short Documentary - “Beirut National Museum;Rebirth”
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