Newly Re-Opened, Beirut’s Sursock Museum is a Survivor

12 June, 2023
Open for the first time in Beirut since the Port Explosion blast in August 2020, the Sursock Museum presents several new exhibitions, among them Beyond Ruptures, A Tentative Chronology.


Arie Amaya-Akkermans


As a cornerstone of the city’s cultural life for decades, and as a symbol of its rich architectural heritage, the Sursock Museum is the museum of Beirut in the absence of public institutions to collect and showcase modern and contemporary art. In its over 60 years, the museum has not only served as a memory vault for Lebanese art, but also witnessed the many crises and historical ruptures of the country.

When the Sursock Museum reopened in 1974, after a five-year expansion designed by Gregoire Serof, its moment of rebirth would coincide with a series of crucial and interrelated events in Lebanon that would define its image in the 20th century: the construction boom and rich cultural life of the golden 1960s would meet the political turmoil and violence that would soon materialize into a protracted conflict. It would be impossible to ignore the events of that week in 1975, when the exhibition Treasures of Ecuador: Pre-Columbian Art opened at the museum, on April 18th; five days earlier, the ambush on a bus in Ain el-Remmaneh would signal the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War.

The Sursock’s showcase of prehistoric art in 1975 would be the last temporary exhibition at the museum until 1982, its life interrupted by the intensifying conflict. But it wouldn’t be the first time that events in the country eclipsed the calendar of the museum, for such turbulence has been part of its history. When the highest profile exhibition in the history of the museum, Picasso et la Famille, opened in September 2019 with a number of artworks and photographs on loan from prestigious collections in Europe, the city was consumed by riots. The geopolitical situation and economic recession at the time had been exacerbated by an ongoing waste disposal crisis. Only three weeks later, as the museum previewed another exhibition, the October Revolution began. Massive protests erupted across the country over draconian tax legislation, but soon enough expanded to condemn sectarian rule.

Cultural institutions shuttered their doors and mobilized in the streets like everyone else. And worse was yet to come: the collapse of the Lebanese banking sector later that year robbed people of their life savings, and rapidly escalating poverty was compounded by the Covid pandemic. But none of this was a novelty for the Sursock Museum, which first opened in 1961 after an eight-year struggle between the will of its late founder, Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock —  a Lebanese aristocrat who wanted his private villa in one of the city’s most upscale streets to be transformed into a museum of modern art — and a presidential decree that turned the villa into a palace of government. Since then, the museum has witnessed cycles of closures, reopenings, expansions, and all manner of ups and downs.

Its growth was anything but organic, often the amalgamation of favorable circumstances and bad luck: an irregular acquisitions history and donations often by artists themselves to an institution strengthened at times and restrained at others by changing endowments, expansions, and an unpredictable political landscape. During the first year of the pandemic, with the country weary from months of sustained protests and economic uncertainty, the museum did what many Lebanese institutions regarded as the hallmark of true resilience — go on with life. Accordingly, in June 2020, Sursock would open an exhibition with works from the collection of early modern painter Georges Corm, bequeathed to the museum in 2018. Corm was the son of Lebanon’s most important classical realist painter, Daoud Corm, and his portraits had influence over a whole generation of modern artists.

Portrait by Georges Daoud Corm’s portrait of Marie Bekhyt Corm before and after Beirut port explosion of 2020
Portrait by Georges Daoud Corm of Marie Bekhyt Corm, before and after Beirut port explosion of 2020 (courtesy Sursock Museum).

The Corm exhibition would yet again mark the end of another era, now regarded as the golden age of the museum that began with its third reopening, after a massive expansion was completed in 2015 by architect Jacques Abou Khaled. During this period, the museum opened its doors to contemporary art with names such as Ali Cherri, Barıș Doğrusöz, Danielle Genadry, Hrair Sarkissian, and Gregory Buchakjian. The latter, both artist and art historian, conveyed to me in a conversation in May that the Sursock Museum is “the only institution that existed in Lebanon before the war but that had a much more important period after the war. After the war, the museum held very important exhibitions, such as [by] Jean Khalife or Omar Onsi, but it was in this glorious period from 2015 to 2019 when the museum was much more sophisticated in every aspect.”

Windows lost in the blast Hallway L1 before the restoration, 2020, courtesy of Sursock Museum
Windows lost in the blast, hallway L1 before the restoration, 2020 (courtesy Sursock Museum).

On the 4th of August 2020, large amounts of ammonium nitrate improperly stored in a warehouse at the Port of Beirut exploded, causing over 200 deaths, thousands of injuries, and partially destroying large swaths of the city. Once again, Sursock would close its doors, but this time it would be different. This wasn’t just another explosion in a city that has seen it all: it is regarded as one of the largest accidental explosions in history. The museum was less than a kilometer from the port, and sustained extensive damage. The iconic facade made of stained glass was completely shattered, century-old wooden floors were broken apart, and some 60 artworks from the collection were damaged and in need of restoration; ceilings collapsed and metallic doors were blown away.

Buchakjian recounts in detail a visit to the museum on the 6th of August, two days after the explosion:

I remember we were quite a large group of people, including many from the art scene; Camille Tarazi, Akram Zaatari, Vartan Avakian, among others, and the director, Zeina Arida, who gave us a tour. A part of the initial destruction had already been cleared, and it was then that I took that famous picture with the sculpture of Saloua Raouda Choucair, which was the only artwork remaining in the upper gallery. Then we went to the basement floor and it was truly spectacular, because the damage was as great as upstairs. Zeina Arida showed us a fireproof vault door that the blast blew off its hinges and impaled on the ceiling.

It was a catastrophe like no other in Lebanese history. If even this couldn’t unseat the corrupt sectarian rule and the amnesties granted to warlords in the 1990s, it is entirely possible that the unlikely and almost fantastical history of the Lebanese Republic would witness yet an even more cruel chapter. But some light shone at the end of the tunnel for the Sursock Museum, once again, when a combination of international grants, fundraising efforts, and in-kind donations would make it possible for the museum to reopen this year at the end of May, with a full program of five exhibitions and thousands of visitors who showed up to the grand reopening — by now the museum’s fourth, and definitely the most difficult and unexpected.

Saloua Raouda Choucair after the 2020 explosion (courtesy of Gregory Buchakjian).
Saloua Raouda Choucair after the 2020 explosion (courtesy Gregory Buchakjian).

In the words of Karina Helou, the museum’s new director, “more than 4,000 people visited the museum on the opening night, especially young people, and it was clear that the return of the museum was crucial, at a time when people are in need of access to culture more than ever.” But the enormous task of bringing a museum back to life after such a catastrophe cannot be underestimated; more stakeholders were involved in the effort than can be accounted for here. Grants from the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict (ALIPH), the French Ministry of Culture, UNESCO, and the Italian Agency for Development and Cooperation, among others, enabled the museum to stabilize the building structurally, restore its historical elements, and make it functional.

The stained glass façade was restored by Maya Hussein, who also worked on the previous renovation, using hand-blown glass sheets donated from France’s last traditional atelier, and based on archival photographs from the time when Nicolas Sursock was still living in the palace. The famous Salon Arabe, where Nicolas Sursock welcomed guests, an exquisite Oriental interior preserved from the original house and of which there are very few examples today (a number of them were collected by Western museums), was restored with the precision of an archaeological reconstruction by Camille Tarazi and the Maison Tarazi atelier, founded in 1962 and specialized in traditional woodwork. As for the Sursock Palace, the grand private residence  across the street, it is still being restored — a much more complex undertaking, given that every element in the building is a piece of art.

Beyond Ruptures, a Tentative Chronology (2023), curated by Karina El Helou Photo- Walid Rashid. Courtesy of Sursock Museum
Gallery view, Beyond Ruptures, a Tentative Chronology (2023), curated by Karina El Helou (photo Walid Rashid, courtesy Sursock Museum).

One of the exhibitions, Beyond Ruptures, a Tentative Chronology,  curated by Helou, is a tripartite historical chronology, juxtaposing different accounts of Lebanese history — the history of the museum and its exhibitions, the political events in the country, and the artistic production of artists in Lebanon. Based on pieces mostly on loan from the Saradar Collection, Sursock’s extensive archives (in 1977, when the exhibitions came to a halt, the museum set up a department for archives of Lebanese artists), and newspapers from the period, the exhibition maps out a territory that is not simply a historiography of art, but a testimony of interruption as continuity.

Helou spoke with The Markaz Review about the process of the exhibition: “The museum’s history is intertwined with the history of the country, therefore its collection and the artistic production reflects these ruptures within, the absences, the moments of hope and destruction.” Although Beyond Ruptures is relatively small for an exhibition dealing with historical archives, here and there captures the essence of pivotal moments of transition, transformation and elision, and reveals traces left behind by the events, from Aref El Rayess’ “The Day of the Lebanese University” (1968), depicting the violent events after a student demonstration, through “Oh Beirut” (2020), a large drawing by Laure Ghorayeb, a much-respected artist and art critic who died recently, and whose collages were damaged during the explosion, as they were being exhibited at the museum. She produced this drawing for the museum after 2020.

Je suis inculte 2023 curated by natasha gasparian ziad kiblawi photo walid rashid courtesy sursock museum
Gallery view, Je suis inculte! 2023, curated by Natasha Gasparian Ziad Kiblawi (photo Walid Rashid, courtesy Sursock Museum).

Beyond Ruptures overlaps with another historical exhibition on show at the museum, Je Suis Inculte! The Salon d’Automne and the National Canon,  curated by Natasha Gasparian and Ziad Kiblawi. It looks at the legacy of the eponymous annual juried salon held at the museum since its inauguration in 1961, and the authoritative role it played in shaping a national artistic canon, since a large number of acquisitions at the museum were made from winners of the salon: Saloua Raouda Choucair, Shafic Abboud, and Paul Guiragossian among others. Largely based around the museum’s collections, Je Suis Inculte! (I’m uneducated) includes a number of works that were damaged during the explosion, from a 1939 portrait of Nicolas Sursock by Dutch-French painter Kees Van Dongen, restored at Centre Pompidou in Paris, to a pair of terracotta sculptures, “War” (2006), by Simone Fattal that were first considered total losses but then meticulously reassembled. The exhibition looks at the salon not as a homogenous narrative about national art, but as the center of an unfinished debate about history, tastes, hegemony and dissent.

Several artworks in Beyond Ruptures represent the early years of the civil war: Samir Khadaje’s 1978 untitled drawing of daily life during wartime Lebanon, composed as a three-layered image in motion, Jean Khalife’s two paintings from 1976 and 1977, both titled “The Fear,” following his abduction by militiamen, or Saïd Akl’s paintings from the period after his works were destroyed during the Damour massacre.

What to do when art made about the destruction of the country becomes a part of that destruction? In the absence of an official historiography, and therefore, of public memory, reparation and reconciliation, artists perform the task of historians, archaeologists and anthropologists.

Jean Khalife, The Fear, 1976, courtesy of Saradar Collection
Jean Khalife, “The Fear,” 1976 (courtesy of Saradar Collection).

There are also artistic documents from the following decade when the war seemed to never end: Shafic Abboud, one of the most celebrated Lebanese painters, who moved early on from formal abstraction to expressionism, never depicted the war, except in the painting “The Wrecked City” (1985), in reference to Beirut, and Paul Guiragossian’s “The Struggle of Existence” (1988), in which he portrays faceless characters, perhaps in a state of silent resignation. When Guiragossian’s studio was bombed in 1989, a self-portrait of the artist was damaged; it was dated 1948, a year after he became a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon. His work always carried double traces of destruction and migration. One of Lebanon’s most prominent contemporary artists, Akram Zaatari, reflects on this re-destruction in his “Mini-Album, Summer 1982” (2007), where he re-photographs pictures he made around the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and displays them as a souvenir photo album from that period.

This sense of double destruction begets the provocative question of what to do when art made about the destruction of the country becomes a part of that destruction? In the absence of an official historiography, and therefore of public memory, reparation, and reconciliation, artists perform the task of historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists; they ask the question not only of what has happened, but also what could have happened if things were otherwise. It is this sense of counterfactuality, parallel to the event itself, that permits one to imagine that history could have been different. But the task can only be completed with the mediation of regulatory institutions of memory such as museums, with their archiving and displaying what remains of the past in the present.

The destruction and re-destruction paradoxically connect the past and the present in a context where memory is tenuous. Yet the question here and now isn’t any longer whether there are ruptures in history, or how to overcome them, but that insofar as the only continuous and probable fact of history is rupture, this history is not an autonomous process with a defined arrow of time but a chaotic assemblage of events, objects, and possibilities, as the multiple narratives in Beyond Ruptures suggest. Buchakjian, for one, doesn’t doubt the future of the museum or whether it will carry itself forward. “It is a very interesting museum when you think of it, because it has always been a constantly changing place. It was always different from what it had been before. It was different but the same.”

Paul Guiragossian, The Struggle of Existence, 1988, courtesy of Dalloul Art Foundation
Paul Guiragossian, “The Struggle of Existence,” 1988 (courtesy Dalloul Art Foundation).

Helou, the director, agrees, and reflects on the history of the museum as a process of ongoing adaptability: “Every closure was a rupture for both the museum and for Lebanese art, but I would say that these ruptures are an opportunity to reflect, to modernize, and readapt to an ever-changing environment,” she said in a recent interview with The Markaz Review.

In a conversation between archaeologists, about the contemporaneity of the past, Gavin Lucas notes that “some objects from the past irrupt into the present, others slip away forever, others simply wait or pause–they may or may not emerge.” The message here is that reordering the past of a present that still has not ceased while expecting to find transparent answers is a futile task. Consequently, any attempt to reorganize a visual history that was already ruptured as it was taking place and not only when it was being transmitted archivally, as Helou has done in Beyond Ruptures, implies something beyond simply remembering the past; namely, the unexplained persistence of certain events and features into the present. This persistence of the fragmentary archive contains an element of hope: the hope that the future will be different from the past, or rather, that new possibilities will emerge to finally break the causal chain between past and present, and restart something anew, as if it had never happened before.


Beyond Ruptures, A Tentative Chronology, runs at Sursock Museum, Beirut, May 26th, 2023, through February 11th, 2024.

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is an art critic and senior writer for The Markaz Review based in Turkey, formerly Beirut and Moscow. His work is mostly concerned with the relationship between archaeology, classical antiquity and modern culture in the Eastern Mediterranean, with an emphasis on contemporary art. His byline has appeared previously on Hyperallergic, the San Francisco Arts Quarterly, Canvas, Harpers Bazaar Art Arabia, and he is a regular contributor for the popular Classics blog Sententiae Antiquae. Previously, he was a guest editor of Arte East Quarterly, a recipient of an experts fellowship from IASPIS, Stockholm, and a moderator in the talks program of Art Basel.

Arab artBeiruthistoryLebanese artmuseumspublic memoryrestoration

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