Private initiatives are shaping Lebanon’s museum culture
“Real museums are places where time is transformed into space” wrote Nobel prize winner Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk in the Museum of Innocence.
Although applicable in a variety of contexts, the quote seems however to perfectly fit Lebanon’s challenging dealings with history. Could it be that the drive behind the present pro-liferation of museums is the result of the country’s uneasiness to deal with its own past? Is the museum booming industry a reflection of a desire to write and possibly rewrite the cultural landscape of the past, present and possibly future of Lebanon?
Some highly political museums may confirm this assumption. We can think here of the Hizbullah Mleeta Resistance Tourism Landmark museum inaugurated in 2010 to mark the 10th anniversary of Israel‘s withdrawal from Lebanon or the recent opening in April 2019 of an Independence Museum sponsored by the Kataeb party to mark the 44th anniversary of the Lebanese civil war’s start.
Yet, politics is only one of the various aspects framing Lebanon’s museum culture. A quick overview of the existing landscape highlights the importance of private initiatives and a significant reliance of cultural heritage preservation on the goodwill of a few wealthy families and individuals. This contrasts with the alleged absence of the state in the field of culture, although the national museum of Beirut has attained international recognition, with, for instance, its participation in April 2018 in the fourth edition of the Global Museum Leaders Colloquium, hosted by the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
The Sursock Museum on its side is both publicly and privately financed with a law dating back to 1964 allocating 5% of the Beirut Municipality’s construction permits’ tax revenues to fund the museum’s operations. Re-opened in 2015 after seven years of renovation, it proposes a comprehensive dive into Lebanon’s modern and contemporary art history.
As for private museums, a notable aspect is that many are building on Lebanon’s former great industries. One remarkable initiative in this regard is the soap museum in Saida, South Lebanon. Launched by a rich family of bankers, the Audi family, the eponymous foundation initiated in 1996 the rehabilitation of an old soap factory into a museum that retraces the history of soap making and development over time.
The Silk Museum is Bsous, Mount Lebanon, is also housed in a former silk factory that had run from the early twentieth century until 1950 when the industry waned owing to synthetic silk mass-production from China. George and Alexandra Asseily bought the property in 1973, restored it, and turned it into a museum that opened its doors to the public in 2001. The museum’s objective is to recount the heritage of silk, an industry that has shaped Lebanon’s political, economic, and social history.
One place stands out as an unclassifiable cultural temple. The MiM museum of minerals is indeed unique in its kind. It has been named after the 24th letter of the Arabic alphabet. It is similar to the Latin letter “M” and constitutes the first letter of the Arabic words for “museum”, “minerals” and “mines”. Located in Beirut, next to the innovation campus of the Saint-Joseph University (USJ), it contains more than 2000 minerals from around 70 different countries. With multiple shapes, colors, and stories, the collection impresses by its diversity and constitutes the second most significant one in the world. The museum’s founder, Salim Eddé, has started to build this collection in 1997. His passion and will to share it with others has led to the opening of the museum in 2013.
Three years later, the museum was enriched with a collection of 250 fossils from Lebanon. “Because of the geological constitution of Lebanon, there are no nice local minerals to show. However, as Lebanon was under the sea one million years ago, the country has the best fossils for the period spanning from 90 million to 100 million years BC” he told Fanack. Mr. Eddé has obtained for the museum an exceptionally well preserved Pterodactyl fossil named “Mimodactylus libanensis”, which was discovered in Hjoula, around 10 kilometers east of Jbeil, in the governorate of Mount Lebanon.
Salim Eddé has funded his project entirely on his own, investing almost all of the profits he has made in thirty-six years as the co-founder of the Murex software company. The advantage, he said, is that it gives him more freedom and independence in expanding his work according to what he considers best, rather than follow funders’ policies or prefer-ences.
“What counts for me is that people acquire with this museum a scientific culture through beauty” Mr.Eddé explained. “People are used to the beauty of nature, of animals, of plants, but not of stones or fossils. So beauty is the entrance door to these worlds” he added.
The museum welcomes every year around 30 000 people with very different profiles. More than half of them are foreigners. It proposes attractive entry prices: free for children until twelve years old and a little bit less than four dollars for people above twelve. The ticketing, the shop, and the renting of the event room altogether only cover 15% of the museum operations’ costs.
For now, the MiM is able to handle its low prices while ensuring the continual functioning of the museum. But it is not the case for all museums in the country. The economic crisis is a looming danger which impact is increasingly visible. The Sursock Museum is going through hard times with an unprecedented budget crisis. For now, it does not have any other choice than to close its doors on Mondays, in addition to already non-working Tuesdays, and reduce the number of exhibitions taking place this year.
In an interview with Lebanese French-speaking daily newspaper L’Orient-Le-Jour in February 2019, the director of the museum, Ms. Zeina Arida, said that one idea would have been to keep the permanent exhibition free while monetizing on the temporary exhibi-tions. She however then insisted on the importance of having a place that is completely free, public, cultural, and affordable, adding that the financial barrier can really hamper access to culture for less privileged groups.
And indeed, high costs move museums away from their cultural transmission and inspiration roles, in particular towards children and youth.
For Salim Eddé, “if the MiM gives rise to a kid’s artistic or scientific vocation, I would consider that I have accomplished my mission”.