A year after the catastrophic explosion of the Port of Beirut, which left at least 200 dead and 6,500 more injured, there has been little progress. The country, already mired in financial and health crises, is still in turmoil; the investigation into the explosion – caused by the accidental detonation of 2,750 tonnes of improperly stored ammonium nitrate in a warehouse – has been blocked by a government many consider corrupt.
There are pockets of positive news, however. Among them is the restoration of ancient glass objects kept at the Archaeological Museum of the American University of Beirut, located 3 km west of the port. A key part of the restoration work was supported by the British Museum, which secured a € 25,000 grant from the Tefaf Museum Restoration Fund to repair eight ships dating from the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods.
While much of the Archaeological Museum’s collection was not damaged in the blast, a display case of 74 of its most historically significant glass objects was knocked down, destroying all but two of the vessels. As soon as she saw the devastation, the museum’s curator, Nadine Panayot, decided to collect as many artifacts as possible.
“With all the injustices we have suffered in Lebanon, I felt, my god, that these ships have stories to tell,” she said. “They have witnessed our lives for the past 2,000 years – they have survived the 551 ACE tsunami and many wars. All it took was a corrupt government to lose them all.
After securing the building and the rest of the collection, Panayot says she started calling her contacts overseas for help with materials to salvage the ships: gloves, masks and acid-free paper and boxes. . “I couldn’t just pick up the pieces with my bare hands, the iridescence is so fragile, it’s like powder coming off the wings of a butterfly,” she says. Access to funds in Beirut has been further complicated by the financial crisis.
At the same time, the director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, tasked two of his curators in the Middle East department, Jamie Fraser and Zeina Klink-Hoppe, to see if the London institution could help Beirut. “We were all so shocked to see these images come out of Lebanon,” Fraser recalls. “The next day we were in contact with Nadine Panayot, who told us that the archaeological museum did not have the expertise and the facilities to carry out this very technical conservation, so the project started there.”
Importantly, the funding was secured earlier this year. New York art dealer Rachel Kaminsky, who is on the Tefaf Museum Restoration Fund committee, said it was a unanimous decision to support the project. “The fact that the objects are from antiquity was really important, as was the idea of a collaboration between the Archaeological Museum of Beirut and the British Museum,” she says. “And of course, whether we could somehow help this museum, which had suffered this disaster, played a huge role.”
The 25,000 euros donated to the British Museum will cover the shipping, restoration and technical analysis of four rare bowls, a perfume bottle and a goblet from the Roman imperial period, a Byzantine jug and ‘an elite Islamic chandelier vial – items all of which bear witness to the invention of glassblowing technology in and around what is today Lebanon in the first century CE and the start of production of mass of glassware.
The eight objects deemed sturdy enough to travel to London were identified after a complex “puzzling” process of pairing the fragments, led by Claire Cuyaubère, curator at the National Heritage Institute. 20 other ships have already been restored by the French institute, which was among the first to send aid after the explosion. There are also plans to send a Lebanon-based curator to train alongside a glass conservator at the British Museum, although additional funds are being sought for the internship. “The whole gesture was absolutely wonderful and extremely human,” said Panayot.
With the fragments now packed and ready to ship to London, the ships are expected to be delivered to the British Museum by the end of the year, although bureaucratic procedures, both in the UK and in Lebanon, have proven to be long.
A memorandum of understanding has been established between the two museums which covers the loan of the fragmented ships, conservation work (which is expected to take around four months), any scientific research and a small display of the ships at the British Museum. once restored, curated by Fraser and Panayot.
“It’s a complicated, yet exhilarating challenge,” said Fraser, adding that the exhibit will reflect both what ships “represent in the ancient world of glass-making as well as the modern history of the crises facing Beirut. is facing “.
The Tefaf Restoration Fund, which will mark its 10th anniversary in 2022, has had a record number of applications this year – 39 in total – according to Kaminsky. But she looks forward to more interest from Africa, Asia and South America for the future. Each year, € 50,000 is allocated to projects – usually two per year – and the second recipient of this year’s scholarship is Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, who received € 20,000 to restore an 1879 portrait by Edouard Manet of his cousin, Jules Dejouy.
Showing a stern and tense lawyer who was Manet’s supporter and later executor, the portrait was acquired by the Welsh Museum instead of inheritance tax in 2020. Adam Webster, chief curator, hopes the cleanup and the restoration will reveal “the subtlety of the painting and… an impression of depth”.
Around the world, Panayot is even more factual. “Honestly, as a curator, restoring these objects does not make sense, but restoring them to give them a voice again, to bear witness to what has been inflicted on Lebanon, it makes a lot of sense to me,” she said. . .