2010
01.24

SYNOPSIS:  A VISIT OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF BEIRUT

It did not start on the right foot – rain was pouring, I took a serveece out to the museum, but the driver had no clue where the museum was and was not able or willing to read my map either…  So he drove me around in circles which made him mad and compelled me to pay him double in the end.  Now how up-side-down is it to pay a taxi driver double for not knowing one of the most important sights of his own town.  Oh well…

Eventually I was out of the taxi, I was out of the rain, and in the museum and that made up for it.  A very noisy Japanese tour group was there and a handful of tourists.  After the group left, it felt like I had the museum to myself.

There are two floors to this museum.  The ground floor is accented by various large-scale items such as sarcophagi, mosaics, votive sculptures, and columns.  The upper floor is chronologically organized into periods from pre-historic through the Islamic dynasties.  Many glass cases house small-scale objects, jewelry, glass and bronzes, and coins.  Tri-lingual labeling helps tremendously.  Some of my pictures illustrate this setting.

But what was most impressive was an introductory film about the recent history of this museum which was only built at the beginning of the 20th Century.  In 1975, at the start of the civil war in Lebanon which waged between Christians and Muslims along the famed “green line” until 1991, and which is responsible for so much damage in Beirut – the museum closed.  Many of the first floor objects were encased in concrete for 20 years!  Many of the small-scale objects were put into storage areas and sealed as well for 20 years.

The museum sits at an intersection which presented the dividing line between the warring factions and was hard, hard hit!  The images in the movie were mind-boggling.  The façade was barely standing.   In 1995, four years after the end of the war, the government put funds into a full-scale restoration of the museum and an assessment and restoration of the thousands of objects.

Miraculously, the concrete encasements of the first floor had proven successful.  They were sliced open with power saws and beneath those “bunkers” there was the art – intact.  The storage areas did not fare as well.  Water had seeped in and since the areas were sealed, this went unnoticed.  Thousands of objects were soaked.  The damage was tremendous.  In another area a fire had broken out due to bomb shelling and the objects there literally melted into irretrievable globs.

Only one small glass vitrine in the museum shows damaged objects from those storage areas.  I wish a larger section of the museum had been dedicated to the effects wars such as this have not only on people but on irreplaceable cultural artifacts.

One other thing struck me about this museum.  Each and every of the 6000 articles in it was from Lebanon!  How different this is from any European and American museum.  There, we display artifacts from our own culture, but a main portion of any National Museum, or any major museum for that matter – is dedicated to the cultures of the world.  We expect to find an Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Renaissance, or Baroque section in any major museum.  We expect the full spectrum of the visual arts.

Here, impressive as it is that all of the artifacts are locally excavated, it also leaves a void.  I don’t need to see another Renaissance painting.  But where will the Lebanese people go in order to get educated about the full range of Western (or Asian, Africa, Oceanic, etc) art?  At the AUB (American University of Beirut) I noticed that the department of History of Art was missing.  There was archeology (that was what was represented as well at the museum today) and there was architecture.  Unfortunately, my guide at AUB, the business major who was not interested in art as she told me herself, was not the one to answer my question.  Here it is again:

Is the history of art in its full scope taught and represented anywhere?  If I have any Lebanese readers, can you enlighten me?  One way or another, I will have to find out.

Good night.

UPDATE I:

According to Setareh, there really is no art history education, no full-range art museum,  not even really the concept of an artist as we understand it in the Western world.  Artist here, means always female and ranges from masseuse to belly dancer, or singer…

UPDATE II:

According to Karine, a Lebanese artist whom I met today and to her boyfriend, there are elective classes in art history.  Perhaps, not very much in depth, but they are available at the university level.  But no art history program and no museums.