A Contemporary Approach for a Historic Collection

The Beirut Museum of Art might not be opening its doors until 2027, but the groundwork on this landmark project is well under way, from repair and outreach work to cutting edge imaging and digitising, as Artscoops discovers.

BeMA team, photo by Ricardo Labaki

Museum openings are always milestone events, but the work under way ahead of the launch of the Beirut Museum of Art (BeMa) undoubtedly raises the bar in terms of preparation, organisation and project significance.

Scheduled to open in 2027 on a site owned by the Université Saint Joseph (USJ), once complete, the landmark institution will be home to more than 2,400 modern and contemporary artworks by almost 400 artists that are set to collectively make up Lebanon’s first national art collection. Ahead of the opening, acquisitions of artworks and archives will be made to complete the collection and representation of the Lebanese artistic discourse.  

The historic project is both complex and multi-layered for a variety of reasons, not least because the final physical structure is not yet in place to accommodate the team and collection. However, as co-director Juliana Khalaf Salhab and her colleagues recognise, the unique situation they find themselves in presents as many opportunities as it does challenges.

“Starting from scratch gives us a blank canvas to work with, which is incredibly exciting,” she said. “We’re also really keen to make this a project of its time, and working as we are now, without the confinement of four walls, is a good example of this. It reflects what’s happening, in many ways, across the broader art world, so it’s a strategy we’ll take with us into the next phase of our work when the museum opens.” 

There is also recognition amongst the team of the significance that this unique collection will assume once in place, given its breadth and depth, and the responsibility they have in bringing the project to fruition. As impressive as it is expansive, the collection will bring together under one roof paintings, paper works, sculptures and photographs from the last 120 years, spanning early works by Daoud Corm and Khalil Saleeby, through to others by the modernists such as Khalil Zghaib and, finally, those of contemporary figures like Yvette Achkar and Shafic Abboud. 

“As we began the research process last year, there was a growing realisation that this first and only national collection would be filling key voids in Lebanon’s history through art, revisiting narratives that tell the full story of the country’s 400-year cultural heritage, while also creating new and future narratives,” Taline Boladian, co-director explained. 

National Library Mobile Digitization Lab, photo by Mahmoud Merjan

Initial challenges faced included the poor condition of many of the works selected for the collection, with almost 600 paintings requiring complex, varied repair work, as Kerstin Khalife Head of Conservation, explained.

“The damage ranged from mould and tears to negligence and excessive handling, some of which dates back decades,” she said. 

Khalife added that since old damage and a history of neglect require a specific approach and expertise is lacking locally, the team had enlisted the help of specialists to help fill the local void by undertaking some of the work. “However, there will be a focus on training and transferring knowhow, so that others can acquire these valuable skills locally,” she noted.

Not having a physical structure in place has also meant adapting to new ways of working in the fields of imaging and digitising, according to Mahmoud Merjan, Head, Archives & Digitisation Department.

“Usually, I’d have everything in one place under a single roof, so going out to different locations is a new and enjoyable experience, even if there are sometimes time pressures,” said Merjan, who added that he’d even had to create a traveling easel to take on site. “For example, I spent a week at the Presidential Palace filming artworks which was an incredible opportunity.”

Other locations earmarked for filming include the Prime Minister’s Palace (Grand Serail), Parliament, the Presidential Summer Residence (Beiteddine), the UNESCO Palace and various Ministry of Culture offices. 

Creating a tailored data management system from scratch has also proved beneficial, Merjan added.

“By producing our own tools and applying our own methodologies, we were able to adapt these tech solutions to the collection rather than the other way round, which has long been the traditional format for institutions, and that gave us agility and flexibility,” he said. 

BeMA in public schools, photo by Rayane Raidy

Other positives have included opportunities to undertake collaborative work with institutions such as the American University of Beirut (AUB) Science Lab, which supported the team in their research and archiving work, Boladian noted. 

“Many of the artworks handed over for the collection had little in the way of accompanying literature and some of what there was proved to be inaccurate,” she said. “By teaming up with the science lab we were able to take our research to the next level and I’m delighted to see that this and other similar partnerships are already building bridges through shared research and loaned works, for example, which was one of the key aims for BeMa.”

Another area already beginning to deliver results has been the educational component, which is being overseen by Maya Hage, Head, Learning and Outreach Department, and has inclusivity and flexible working practices, among other tenets, at its core. The team has already taken its innovative learning tools into 16 public schools across the country and is working to engage with diverse communities, including groups representing underprivileged children.

“We decided to adopt a loose structure and holistic approach when it comes to art education, with the idea of giving it a broader context of societal value,” she explained. “Taking that starting point, we’re looking at strategies such as training artists to become mentors, as well as art tutors, so that they have the skills to encourage the children to communicate and express themselves through art and in a wider context.”

This innovative approach reflects the broader spirit that is found across BeMa’s departments, which extends to thoughts around ensuring it is both inclusive and outward looking. Reflecting this stance, Clemence Cottard Hachem, Artistic Director, BeMa, has created programmes that are decentralising art exhibitions, and featuring the work of Lebanese artists, by taking them countrywide into communities. 

“We always say that although one of the main challenges is to build a museum, another that we have to keep in focus is to create a public,” Cottard Hachem said. “When a museum opens, a large part of a population thinks that it’s not for them. We will be out and about, engaging with communities to relay the message that culture is for everyone. But we also want to share the news over the next four years that this new museum is your home, housing your art.”

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