[Published here October 7, 2015 with photos]
Beirut (AFP) – From nighttime walks around the city to workshops on art conservation, Beirut’s grandiose Sursock Museum reopens this week as Lebanon’s first interactive museum of contemporary art.
Closed for eight years for major renovation work, the impressive mansion-turned-museum is to open to the public from Thursday, free of charge, with exhibits honouring the history of art in Beirut.
The walls have been adorned with photographs from Lebanese collector Fouad Debbas and vibrant, geometric paintings from the country’s “golden era” in the 1960s.
Outside, two grand white staircases curve upwards in an arch above the entrance, overlooking a spacious mezzanine to be used for a host of activities.
“For a lot of people, a museum is a place to visit and to look. We hope that this museum will be more than this — that it’ll be a place for interaction,” said Tarek Mitri, who chairs the museum’s committee.
Among the plans are nighttime walks throughout Beirut hosted by local artists and photography classes for teenagers.
The projects are a welcome innovation for Beirut residents, whose city has few museums of any kind and little public space.
“Although we are a museum, we should be seen as a space for exchange, for encounter,” said museum director Zeina Arida.
“We lack public spaces, spaces where we can quarrel, get along, where we can express without getting into conflict,” Arida told AFP.
– Making art ‘playful’ –
The Sursock Museum started out life as a mansion built in 1912.
It first opened its doors as a museum in 1961, in accordance with the will of its owner Nicholas Sursock who wanted his grand home transformed after his death.
“The museum was very active since it opened in 1961 until the beginning of the civil war” in 1975, showcasing both international and local artists, Arida said.
One of the museum’s most prized events was the “salon d’automne,” an invitation for artists to submit their work for a chance to have it displayed at the Sursock.
Now, the decades-old posters featuring winners from the 1960s and 1970s decorate Sursock’s walls, and organisers say they will restart the competition next year.
“We need to make the approach to contemporary art playful… People are coming to the museum to learn things, so it’s a place for education but also a place for fun, a place where people learn but don’t get bored,” Arida said.
Nora Razian, the museum’s head of programmes and exhibitions, said a wide range of activities are planned for audiences of all ages and interests.
Gardening classes and panel discussions on gender and on public space feature among the events of the first three months.
“A museum is a space for discussions, for debate, for discovery. So a public programme really fits into the museum structure,” she added, seated in Sursock’s underground library.
To preserve the original architecture of the more than century-old building, architects dug 20 metres (yards) underground to add the library, an auditorium, new exhibition spaces and rooms for conservation and restoration.
– ‘Art is a way of thinking’ –
From the museum’s sleek newly-constructed wings to the bright paintings on its walls, Sursock is a testament to “the history of art in Beirut”, said the head of collections, Yasmine Chemali.
“It’s the first museum of modern and contemporary art in Beirut and this collection really shows the history of art,” she said.
The mixed-medium “Gazes at Beirut” collection of photographs, sketches and paintings traces the city’s transformation from a small coastal town during the Ottoman empire to a buzzing metropolis by 1960.
And the Fouad Debbas collection of over 30,000 images covers the history of photography in Beirut from the end of the 19th century to the start of the 20th century, Chemali said.
The museum’s own architecture, too, tells the story of Beirut’s evolution.
Sleek hallways tinted with light falling through stained-glass windows seamlessly lead into wooden-panelled Arab sitting rooms on one floor and a modern reception area on another.
“The transition between the old building and the new premises is really smooth, and maybe metaphorically allows us to build a much needed bridge between our history, the collection that we preserved, and also our contemporary time,” Arida said.
Both Arida and Razian said they hope Sursock will contribute towards building a “museum culture” in Lebanon.
“A museum necessarily has to reflect the society it’s based in. It has to do that to stay relevant, to stay part of the discussion, to be an active member of civil society,” Razian said.
“Art is not only what you see on the wall… It is a way of looking at the world, a way of thinking.”