Beirut’s National Museum: History in a Bunker
By: Joanne Bajjaly
Published Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Seventy years after it opened, the National Museum, once a byword for division in Beirut, has acquired new status as a symbol of unity and rebirth.
Passersby looking up at the edifice may wonder why it was kept in place after being so ravaged by years of war. Locals may ask themselves why they do not visit it more often. The answers to both are part of a story that makes the National Museum of Beirut unique.
The Museum was inaugurated on 17 May 1942 by President Alfred Naccache, before Lebanon achieved its independence. Contrary to common belief, it was not founded by the French, but by a group of Lebanese intelligentsia. They had formed a committee two decades previously to plan and raise funds for the building of a national museum to house the archaeological artefacts found in the country. They acquired the site for it behind the Beirut race-track and approved plans for its construction, in an architectural style fashionable at the time, featuring front columns with a distinctly Pharaonic look.
When the Museum opened, its galleries were filled with artefacts. Some of these had been collected by the French archaeologist Raymond Weill and others were discovering during the excavation of major sites such as Byblos and Sidon. They included pottery, engravings, statues, lamps, mosaics and jewellery. The collection proceeded to grow by the month.
During the golden age of archaeology in Lebanon, between 1960 and 1975, new finds were being sent to the Museum on an almost daily basis. Its storerooms could no longer accommodate all the material. But the boom did not last long.
When civil war broke out in 1975, it was obvious that the museum’s location, on a major intersection in the middle of Beirut, would make the contents vulnerable. The museum was closed. During cease-fires, chief curator Maurice Chehab and his wife would enter through a back door to oversee a secret effort to safeguard the exhibits.
Smaller items, which could most easily be stolen, were placed in the underground storerooms which were then sealed off with concrete walls. Intruders unfamiliar with the building would not be aware that the country’s treasures were hidden behind them. Larger pieces were protected by being enclosed in wooden structures, which were then encased in cement.
As Beirut divided and the battles raged, the edifice, which since 1942 had stood as testimony to a strong sense of culture and citizenship, became a war zone. Militiamen moved in, occupying its floors, lighting fires to keep warm within its walls, and scrawling on its marble statues. People would meanwhile line up outside it doors: the “Museum Crossing” was on the frontline between the two sectors of Beirut. Vendors would stand in its courtyard selling tomatoes and cucumbers.
The Museum bore silent witness to that episode while concealing the country’s history within its walls. Perhaps it knew the crisis would not last. The war ended, and the gunmen withdraw, leaving the Museum in a state of devastation, looted and vandalized, but still standing.
The Museum’s story resembles Lebanon’s. The former is built over an underground spring that constantly threatens to flood it, while the latter lies on a seismic fault line that forever threatens its existence. The water seeped into the basement storerooms during the war and ruined thousands of items. But the Lebanese willed the museum back into being.
It took over ten years to repair all the damage. Again, this was a Lebanese initiative. The National Heritage Foundation was established to raise the funds needed for the reconstruction and to ensure the building was restored to its former glory. Engineers skillfully applied the latest museum technology in preserving and displaying the exhibits, and the museum was reborn as one of the most beautiful in the Middle East.
The National Museum of Beirut’s story is unlike that of any other. It has much in common with those of the national museums in Kabul and Baghdad, which were also ravaged by war. But Beirut’s museum was itself a killing ground, whose very name instilled terror in people, yet it became a symbol of national unity. The galleries in which militiamen had lived became a place to bring the Lebanese together, with each other, first, and then with their history.
Is a story that deserves to be taught at universities. It tells of steadfastness and of rejecting the reality of war and death, and symbolizes a people’s struggle to preserve their history. The steadfastness lay in the stubborn insistence on keeping the museum in its location, and not accepting what the war had inflicted on it. This is what has turned it into a national icon. The museum was not rebuilt in a way that would make it unrecognizable to people, nor moved to a new site where it would acquire a new identity, but repaired, while the surrounding evidence of war has remained clear.
Many of those who want to forget may, therefore, avoid going to it. But once they are reconciled with the past, they come. For the museum is reconciled with its past, and does not forget its history – it displays it.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.