BEIRUT—Young Lebanese need to learn about their history and civilisation, not political division and violence, says Henri Zogheib, director of the Centre of Lebanese Heritage.
The centre, at the Lebanese American University, publishes a heritage magazine which Zogheib hopes will become a repository of research studies, and encourages students and researchers to delve into topics related to Lebanese heritage.
It is not the only higher-education institution in Lebanon that is putting new emphasis on conserving and restoring cultural heritage after years of war, negligence and mismanagement that led to the loss and theft of artifacts and works of art.
“They only know what they hear in the news and on social media, which is poisonous and divisive. They think that Lebanon is all about political divisions and violence. At the centre, we want to introduce them to ‘Lebanon the nation,’ which means heritage, civilisation, history, nature and iconic figures. These transcend time, politics and wars.”Henri Zogheib, director of the Centre of Lebanese Heritage at the Lebanese American University
Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (USEK) recently unveiled a series of paintings restored to their former beauty by art students and Italian specialists as part of a new study programme.
Despite the growing academic interest, however, Zogheib feels too many of the younger generation are not really aware of their heritage.
“They only know what they hear in the news and on social media, which is poisonous and divisive. They think that Lebanon is all about political divisions and violence,” Zogheib told Al-Fanar Media.
“At the centre, we want to introduce them to ‘Lebanon the nation’, which means heritage, civilisation, history, nature and iconic figures. These transcend time, politics and wars.”
The heritage centre at the Lebanese American University was established 20 years ago.
“It is important to introduce our students to cultural and social values, history and civilisation,” Zogheib said. “Our mission is to preserve these values and instil them in young people. At the Lebanese American University, we don’t want to graduate students with professional degrees only. … We want them to be educated and cultured.”.
Zogheib wants to introduce heritage studies in the university’s regular curricula as a first step toward a whole programme of heritage studies.
“Students are increasingly interested in heritage preservation by attending conferences and seminars. Those who are seeking to emigrate after graduation are actually fleeing the corrupt state, not Lebanon as a nation and heritage,” he said.
The centre has a collection of old manuscripts, objects, paintings of famous Lebanese artists, and old photos of Lebanon’s natural resources which are stored on the university’s campus in Byblos, north of Beirut.
“The plan is to exhibit them once we are assigned a space which we want to turn into a permanent museum. This is how we preserve the collective memory of the people,” Zogheib said.
A New Programme at Kaslik
Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (USEK) introduced its new programme in the conservation and restoration of cultural property in 2018 in collaboration with Italy’s University of Urbino, which specialises in restoration work.
“It is a unique programme not only in Lebanon but in the region,” said the programme’s director, Joseph Zaarour. “We are the only university that offers B.A. and M.A. degrees in restoration and conservation of cultural heritage.”
He added: “It is also a valuable programme because it aims at preserving the collective memory, civilisation and history of the people. … If our heritage is erased or lost, the nation is lost.”
The paintings recently restored by the programme belong to the Sursock Museum and were badly damaged in the 2020 Beirut Port blast.
“We are the only university that offers B.A. and M.A. degrees in restoration and conservation of cultural heritage. It is also a valuable programme because it aims at preserving the collective memory, civilisation and history of the people. … If our heritage is erased or lost, the nation is lost.”Joseph Zaarour, director of the new at Holy Spirit University of Kaslik
“Restoration of cultural heritage in Lebanon has always been done by foreign experts from Italy or France because we did not have this specialty here. But in two years’ time, we will graduate the first batch of restoration experts who will be qualified to do a proper job,” Zaarour said.
The university has set up three fully equipped specialist workshops for the restoration of different aspects of cultural heritage. One focuses on paintings on wood and fabric. Another is devoted to stone materials, frescoes, decorated architectural surfaces, and columns. The third deals with paper, including books and manuscripts.
The programme started with nine students shortly before the 2019 economic and financial crisis, which was followed by the Covid pandemic.
“During the confinement, Italian professors could no longer travel to Lebanon and the courses were given online. At one point we did send our students to Italy to complete the courses that involved laboratory work. Now the teachers have started to come back,” Zaarour said.
The programme is the same as one offered at the University of Urbino. After three years of study on the Kaslik campus to acquire a B.A. degree, the students spend two years in Italian universities for their M.A. degree.
“In fact, it is a five-year programme, because with a B.A. degree one is not considered a specialist restorer. Students have to specialise in one of three subjects. If it is wood and fabric they go to Urbino, for stone artifacts restoration they go to Naples, and for books and manuscripts they go to Rome or Bologna. We have agreements with all these universities,” Zaarour said.
Zogheib and Zaarour agree that heritage education should start at an early age.
“It is important to start inculcating cultural and heritage values in young children,” Zogheib said. “Heritage and cultural studies should be part of regular school curricula. We should not wait until they reach higher education. … That is the only way to raise culturally aware generations.”
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