History in the Making

Karina El Helou, who was appointed Director of the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum in October 2022, tells us how she approached the inevitable challenges that came with the role and offers a snapshot of what audiences can look forward to seeing when the doors of this iconic institution reopen in late May 2023. 

What were the initial challenges you faced when taking over in October as Director of the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum?

I was very aware when I agreed to take up this post that the challenges involved in preparing for the museum’s reopening would be both significant and wide-ranging. 

Some of the obstacles relate to the broader difficult situation in Lebanon, such as the struggle to secure funding for projects and prepare for the relaunch in a tough economic climate. The museum is large in size, with plenty of space to fill for exhibitions, so that brings its own challenges at a time when budgets are very tight.

The uncertainty we face as a country also makes team-building problematic since a significant number of industry professionals with expertise and knowhow have left Lebanon to take up opportunities abroad. Maintaining qualitative processes and content was therefore a priority for me from the outset when I took on the role. 

Preparation work for the reopening of the Sursock Museum

Given your background, what specific strengths do you think you bring to the role?

One of the key pointers that came up in the discussions I had with the Executive Committee of the Sursock Museum ahead of my appointment was my previous experience as an independent curator. Working in this way meant I’d spent several years in a combined role focused on both fundraising and recruiting for my projects. It’s more common in the industry for these two components to be split into two separate jobs, but I’ve always been happy to immerse myself in the entrepreneurial aspect of the work alongside the curating element. I’m comfortable organising, coordinating and fundraising, for example, while also building a team for production, creating a PR strategy and managing a project. 

I think having this broad oversight equips you well for making decisions in emergency mode, which we all knew would be part of the process ahead of reopening the Sursock. The museum was in total crisis and extensively damaged following the blast at the Port in August 2020 and I knew that trying to prioritise several crucial components of the project and juggling tasks would be a key part of the Director role in the early stages. The good news is that the building work is now complete and we are on target to reopen in late May.

How you plan to put into practice the Board’s aims for the next chapter of the Sursock’s story, which include a sharper focus on innovative programming and fostering new partnerships?

I’m working on a broad range of ideas which align closely with the objectives laid out by the Board. One of these is to create partnerships with museums beyond our borders, especially those elsewhere in the region. While I see this as beneficial for all involved, it makes sense, in particular, for Lebanon. Beirut has long been a hub for cultural dialogue, positioned at a geographical crossroads and home to a rich and diverse heritage, marked by Mediterranean, Arab and European influences. It’s really important to ensure we continue to build on these strengths and make the most of them.

Of course, it’s early days and bringing these kinds of projects to fruition will take time. The behind-the-scenes side of things has inevitably been time-consuming because of the scale of the reopening. In terms of new projects, it’s important to strike a balance between being innovative and traditional. While visitors are keen to embrace new ideas and fresh initiatives, a major museum is also about the historiographic approach.

Sursock façade lit up, photo by Nadim Asfar

Has the restoration work carried out on the damaged artworks been completed?

Yes, all of the 50 works damaged have been successfully restored, with the help of the Institut National du Patrimoine, the Bema Museum and the Centre Pompidou, while the two restorers - Kerstin Khalife and Caroline Gelot - have been working for the last two years on this project. We are now just waiting to restore a few remaining sculptures.

There’s great anticipation building about the Sursock’s reopening. What exhibitions can visitors look forward to seeing when at the relaunch?

We are planning three main exhibitions for the reopening: the Permanent Collection galleries, curated by Natasha Gasparian; Twin Galleries group exhibition, curated by Marie-Nour Hechaime; and, in the galleries of the first floor, an exhibition on the history of the museum, curated by myself. We also have a few other surprises planned for the reopening.

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