August 6, 2020

Thursday, August 06, 2020 - , 1 comment

An intimate snapshot of Beirut's devastation through a look at the Sursock Palace and Museum

The Sursock Palace ravaged by the double explosion at
the port of Beirut on Tuesday
Image Credit: Basel Dalloul
For fifteen years, museums in Beirut suffered during a war that divided the city, as more than a dozen warring militias fought over the division of political power in a society with eighteen recognized sects.  Located on the front line separating the fighting factions, the Beirut National Museum was one of the first victims of war.  

Image overlooking the National Museum of Beirut,
November 22, 1992.

Yet, in 2020, it was not factional violence between Christians and Muslims, Isreali or Hezbollah forces, or even Islamist terrorists which dealt a harsh blow to the city's museums.  It was a perfect storm of bureaucratic incompetence, as those in positions of authority apparently failed to address the bomb-in-waiting, left for 6 years in one of the city's portside warehouses.

When the 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate detonated, the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum and the Sursock Palace, located a half-mile away in the Achrafieh district of Beirut, were right in its path, two of many historic buildings impacted by the explosion's spherical blast wave.  Once a fixture of Beirut’s art scene, the Sursock Mansion had once been home to Nicolas Sursock, the Lebanese philanthropist and art collector, who bestowed his property to the city of Beirut upon his death, with instructions to open his mansion as a public museum.


Well on the east side of the Green Line, the Sursock Museum stoically never closed throughout the country's civil war, remaining open until 2008 when in closed for much-needed renovations and expansion.  Reopening in 2015, after a $15 million makeover, the museum is home to the Fouad Debbas photographic collection and a large collection of modern and contemporary paintings, comprised of works by predominantly Lebanese artists, from the late 1800s to the early 2000s.  With a restaurant on its grounds, rotating art exhibitions, and concerts, the museum stood at the heart of the city's art scene, and was a prominent hub for the dissemination of modern and contemporary Arab art.

When the world lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Sursock Museum, with fresh curatorial vision, was keen to keep culture in the forefront.  Even while its doors were closed due to the virus, the museum remained relevant, releasing a virtual tour of one of its exhibitions, Baalbek, Archives of an Eternity, curated by Vali Mahlouji.  In this way, its patrons could remain safe and still engage with the museum's collections in the age of social distancing.

Having tentatively reopened in mid-June only to have to reclose due to the second wave of health-related restrictions, the museum's marvelous collection now lays in shambles, thanks to the port authority's excruciating and improper management. When the combustible agricultural fertilizer exploded, the museum's paintings and drawings were blown from their walls or left hanging in tatters, some pierced by the flying glass shards from the windows that once protected them.

The Sursock Palace 
There is no way, in one single blog post to adequately cover the devastation of the massive explosion in the Beirut port just after 6pm on August 4 which killed more than 135 people, injured thousands, and left 300,000 people homeless.


This is just one snapshot, of the damages inflicted on one cultural institution, which is suffering in its aftermath.

The Sursock Palace
Sursock Museum
Image credit: Marie Nour Hechaime, curator
If the museum and palace are to survive the Friends of the Sursock Museum will likely play a pivotal role in supporting its continued existence, and ensuring that the museum and palace collections can be conserved and eventually be accessible once again.

Framed painting at the Sursock Palace
For more information on how to become a friend of the Sursock Museum they can be reached here.

Sursock Museum
Image credit: Marie Nour Hechaime, curator

The Sursock Palace
For more information on how to donate to relief efforts via the Lebanese Red Cross, contact them here.


Maybe together we can help Beirut's citizens pick up the pieces.

1 comments:

So sad to see more examples of the shocking devastation in the Lebanon. Beirut has been through so much.