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Explosion Took a Heavy Toll on Beirut’s Arts and Culture Scene

Arts and cultural organizations around the world are pledging “cultural first aid” to help the museums, galleries, and other cultural institutions in Beirut that were badly damaged by the massive explosion that ripped through large swaths of the city earlier this month.

In a recent statement, a coalition of 27 major organizations pledged to “do all that we can to contribute to the complete recovery of the heritage that has been damaged in Beirut by this blast.”

Organizations that signed the statement, issued on August 11, include the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage, in Bahrain; the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (Aliph); the Louvre, in Paris; Morocco’s National Museum Foundation; the National Museum of China; and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Unesco has said that it will lead the international assistance. “The international community has sent a strong signal of support to Lebanon following this tragedy,” Ernesto Ottone Ramírez, the agency’s assistant director-general for culture, said in a separate statement. “Unesco is committed to leading the response in the field of culture.”

Meanwhile, Beirut-based organizations, some of which saw their own offices destroyed, have moved quickly to begin helping smaller galleries, cultural centers and individual artists.

Devastation in the City’s Creative Heart

The blast, attributed by the authorities to 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate left in a warehouse at the city’s port, did particularly severe damage to the nearby historic neighborhoods of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhaël.

An initial assessment found that 8,000 buildings, many concentrated in those two districts, were affected, according to Sarkis Khoury, director-general of antiquities at Lebanon’s Ministry of Culture. Among them are some 640 historic buildings, approximately 60 of which are at risk of collapse.

Gemmayze and Mar Mikhaël were the center of the creative life of the city, with numerous artists’ studios, art galleries, bookshops, cafes and a thriving night life. Now they are scenes of devastation, with rubble and crushed cars littering the streets and building after building with its façade damaged or blown off.

“Many individual artists lost their homes and their studios,” says Helena Nassif, managing director of Culture Resource (Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy). “Some have been injured; some are still in shock.” (See a related article, “Nonprofit Groups Shift Tactics to Help the Arts Survive the Coronavirus.”)

“Many individual artists lost their homes and their studios. Some have been injured, some are still in shock.”

Helena Nassif  
Managing director of Culture Resource (Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy)

Culture Resource is a nonprofit group that awards grants to individual artists and arts and culture organizations across the Arab region. It recently joined with another Beirut-based group, the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), to launch an international fund-raising campaign to help artists make emergency repairs to their workplaces or rent new premises, secure their art works, or replace equipment.

Each of the two groups has contributed $50,000 in seed money. Their goal is to raise $300,000.

“We currently have 30 or 40 organizations and 150 individuals on our priority list” of those who have suffered significant damages, Nassif says, and the list is expected to grow.

Artists Try to Help One Another

Ettijahat (Directions), a Beirut-based nonprofit organization supporting Syrian artists inside and outside their country, joined forces with Action for Hope, another locally-based nonprofit bringing cultural programs to refugees and other marginalized communities. They are also raising funds and intend to soon start making small one-time disbursements of $1,500 to $2,500.

“There is a huge need to support artists’ very existence,” says the group’s executive director, Abdullah AlKafri. Artists desperately need support for “such things as rent, food, medical care, and psychological treatment for those suffering trauma.”

Ettijahat’s office, in the Mar Mikhaël neighborhood, was badly damaged by the blast. The explosion occurred in early evening, when Ettijahat’s and many other offices, were empty. “If the explosion had happened at noon—it would have been a [greater] tragedy,” AlKafri said.

A number of mutual aid initiatives have sprung up on social media, where artists and other cultural practitioners seek to help one another. The Theater Relief Group raised money for performing arts groups through a “Beirut, no show tonight” initiative, billed as a “performance that will not take place” but for which people were asked to purchase a pay-what-you-can ticket.

A damaged gallery at the Sursock Museum (Photo: Rowina Bou-Harb/Sursock Museum).
A damaged gallery at the Sursock Museum (Photo: Rowina Bou-Harb/Sursock Museum).

Museum Collections Suffer Damage

At least eight museums also suffered damages. The Sursock Museum, housing the city’s main collection of modern and contemporary art, is located near the site of the explosion and was badly damaged.

According to a preliminary survey by Patrick Michel, a senior lecturer in Assyriology at the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland, all of the museum’s windows were shattered, including the stained-glass windows of the façade. Several interior walls and crafted ceilings collapsed, and the roof was damaged, exposing the museum to the elements. Twenty to thirty paintings and several ceramic works were damaged. The Sursock had undergone a $15 million renovation in 2015.

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The Museum of Lebanese Prehistory at Saint Joseph University of Beirut suffered significant damage and a glass ceiling is reported to be in danger of collapse and has been temporarily reinforced with wood.

The Archaeological Museum of the American University of Beirut, located about two miles west of the port, had its doors and windows blown out, and suffered some damage to its collection.

The National Museum of Beirut, Lebanon’s leading archaeology collection, suffered damage to windows, doors, and elevators, but its collection is apparently intact.

The Arab Image Foundation, with a unique collection of over 500,000 photographs and documents from the Arab region, is located on the fourth-floor of a building on Gouraud Street in the Gemmayze district, less than half a mile from the site of the explosion. It suffered substantial damage, including to its cold storage room, where its collections are preserved in a stable, climate-controlled and fire-resistant environment.

According to a preliminary damage assessment by Blue Shield International, a network “committed to the protection of the world’s cultural property,” a number of libraries were damaged. These include: the Lebanese National Library, three branches of Beirut Municipal Library, the renowned Oriental Library of St. Joseph University; Lebanese American University’s Riyad Nassar Library, and several libraries at the American University of Beirut. (See a related article, “Beirut’s Damaged Libraries Try to Continue Fulfilling Their Civic Mission.”)   

Historic Zones’ Survival Is Threatened

In Gemmayze and Mar Mikhaël, the badly damaged districts that bore the brunt of the blast, supporters are scrambling to secure buildings and collections. They are also already thinking about the longer-term fate of the historic neighborhoods, which are among the last areas of Beirut to preserve the architecture of the 19th-century Ottoman period.

Many fear they could go the same way as the city’s other historic neighborhoods, razed due to damage from Lebanon’s 1975 to 1990 civil war and pressure from real estate developers.

“Now we are afraid that our heritage, the few remaining historic buildings, may disappear,” says Michel, of the University of Lausanne. “This will leave Beirut with only skyscrapers and horrible buildings.”

“Now we are afraid that our heritage, the few remaining historic buildings, may disappear. This will leave Beirut with only skyscrapers and horrible buildings.”

Patrick Michel  
A senior lecturer in Assyriology at the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland

A number of people working to support the arts community remarked that artists and cultural workers are exhausted and in shock from this latest catastrophe, which came on top of months of a severe financial crisis and the continuing toll of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet supporters note that artists have been heartened by the solidarity shown by their fellow citizens.

Already the day after the explosion, volunteers poured into the damaged areas to sweep away the broken glass that carpeted the streets and help clean and relocate exposed collections.

“The government is doing nothing and no one trusts the government,” says Krystel Khoury, grants coordinator of Mophradat, a Brussels-based nonprofit organization that supports artists across the Arab region and is also raising funds to help members of the arts community affected by the explosion. “It’s the people who went in the streets and started cleaning.”

The Financial Crisis Adds to the Problem

Those involved in fund-raising often stress that donations should go directly to arts and cultural institutions to avoid government corruption. “People are saying: ‘Don’t give money to government channels,’” says Khoury. “It’s very important that all the aid be distributed in a transparent manner.”

An urgent short-term need is to cover roofs and blown-out windows before the autumn rains, which typically start around mid-September.

Huge amounts of glass will be needed to replace windows, façades and display cases, as well as computers and electronic equipment to replace damaged devices. Much of that material will have to be imported, people involved in the recovery efforts say.

This poses a particular challenge now, since even when organizations have the money needed for such purchases, the restrictions imposed by banks during the financial crisis mean that money can be withdrawn only in Lebanese currency, and not in needed dollars or euros.


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