In a country that doesn’t usually agree on much, a growing cultural scene is helping people bond over their rich, shared history and jointly take pride in a burgeoning art scene. As new museum initiatives are launched, it’s also important for entities and the organizations behind them to work together to build a constructive museum culture that will benefit everyone socially and economically in the long run. Whether through shared events like the increasingly popular Nuit des Musées that draws thousands of museum-goers on one night, or by adopting similar lines of thinking when it comes to curating their offerings and learning from one another’s experiences, the national cultural scene will no doubt benefit from a growing appreciation for museums, arts, history and culture in general.
Unlike 2015, when the country saw the opening of several museums and official announcements for others, 2016 produced less visible results but definitely had a lot of activity under the surface.
The Sursock Museum managed in just over a year of operation to prove that a good management strategy can go a long way. By hosting a wide variety of appealing, relevant exhibitions in parallel to a dynamic cultural program of weekly activities, the museum has received 65,000 visitors and a lot of good press.
This is something for other museums, like the nearly-finished but empty Beit Beirut, to keep in mind as they develop an operations concept and strategy, although the ongoing postponement of its opening may be due to issues beyond the control of the organizers. The haunting building that is supposed to be turned into a museum of memory partially dedicated to Lebanon’s civil war is now said to be launching in 2017.
Just down the street, another new museum uses its location on the Green Line to bring communities together. The Beirut Museum of Art (BeMA) is years away from completion, but it already looks promising. Following a competition, HW Architecture’s winning design for the forthcoming contemporary art museum was revealed in October. It features a main section of galleries that is partially sunken and covered by a roof garden, connected to a 124-meter tower.
Two new museums are set to open on opposite ends of Martyrs Square in downtown Beirut in the coming years: Dar Beirut, described as the house of art and culture, and another archeological museum reportedly named the Beirut City History Museum, which is currently under construction adjacent to the Al Nahar building.
Meanwhile, the long-standing National Museum of Beirut, dedicated to preserving the country’s archaeological finds, has exhausted its available space with the addition of its newest funerary exhibition in the basement in October 2016. In an attempt to make the historic museum more dynamic and attractive, and to keep up with its younger, artsy counterparts, it’s continuing with plans to build an extension for temporary exhibitions and events.
Taking archeology into the digital age, the museum has finalized its virtual tour guide app. Similarly, the Lebanese Virtual Museum forgoes a physical space altogether. It’s essentially a website where users can tour the Lebanese government’s art collection in 3D.
But culture shouldn’t be exclusive to museums. In addition to the country’s active art galleries, another successful Beirut Art Fair means Lebanon is growing as a destination for art buyers too. The annual event is turning into a broader call for art events as well. This year, The Silent Echo, an impressive art exhibition held at one of Lebanon’s most renowned heritage sites, Baalbek, included works by internationally renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei as well as other international and local talents.
But even if free of charge, these cultural spaces are often intimidating for those who haven’t been exposed to them. Public art exhibitions this year at the unfinished Lebanese National Library, on the streets of Downtown as part of Beirut Art Week, and inside Sanayeh Garden are all building momentum, however slowly, for a society that cares more about art.
As Beirut regains its footing as a cultural hub in the region, we may even one day go through with the long-promised Beirut Opera House and restore the frail Beirut Grand Theatre to its former glory. One of these venues, or perhaps a third, could also accommodate the hard-working Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra for its weekly, free-of-charge performances.
With so much potential, a rich past, vast future plans and a curious population that’s increasingly enthusiastic about cultural events, Lebanon’s only problem is in actually making things happen.