A story of 20 priceless glass pieces

BEIRUT: “You should know that we’ve already started working. Claire Cuyaubère and Cécile Rodier, two ladies from Paris’ Institut National du Patrimoine [INP], are now finishing the second phase of restoration, [which will close] on 30 August.”

The team at the American University of Beirut’s Archaeological Museum began repairing the damage to its glassware collection on 5 August, says AUBAM curator Nadine Panayot. As of Tuesday, 27 July, 12 of its pieces were again ready for exhibition.

There is a slight edge to Panayot’s voice as she describes the work her team had accomplished before Tuesday, the day the British Museum announced its conservators would lend their expertise to that part of AUBAM’s collection ruined by the Beirut port explosion of 4 August 2020.

Quite a lot had been done, Panayot says, before the European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF) decided to award its Museum Restoration Fund grant, allowing British Museum conservators to restore eight pieces from the collection.

“You can’t send eight vessels for conserving if you don’t know which pieces go together,” she chuckles. “So thanks to the expert and the intern from INP, we were able to puzzle back those eight pieces and pack them [for shipment] overseas without causing further damage.

“They’re still in Beirut, those eight vessels, but as I’ve noticed today, [the British Museum assistance] is already in the news around the world.”

The curator, also a professor at the university’s Department of History and Archaeology, is a relatively recent addition to AUBAM. Assuming her post on September 1 2020, she took over many of the responsibilities of Leila Badre, who’d served as museum director for four decades.

Founded in 1868, AUB’s museum is among the oldest of its kind in this region. Only those in Cairo and Istanbul are older.

“It’s a Near Eastern Museum, not a national one,” Panayot notes. “The collections cover the entire region. The acquisition dates of the pieces [destroyed on 4 August] all go back to before 1920.”

Though the vitrine ruined by the blast held a few medieval pieces, from around the 12th century, she says most of the vessels were from the Roman era, the first century BCE.

“The pieces in this showcase were the most beautiful in the collection – in terms of their fragility, their beauty, their ornamentation. They were mostly tableware, used during banquets. These objects told these stories for over 2000 years. They survived the tsunamis, the earthquakes, two world wars, the Lebanese war. Then they were destroyed in one second on 4 August 2020.”

Of the eight Beirut museums affected by the 4 August blast, Panayot says AUBAM lost the most pieces from its collection.

“Obviously Sursock has suffered more in terms of sheer structural damage and around 55 pieces from its collection were damaged. We lost 72 glass vessels, priceless archaeological pieces.

“We were very lucky. We have thousands of pieces in our collection but we lost only one showcase. Unfortunately, it was our central showcase. Two of the 74 pieces it held have survived.”

Panayot says that by early September she’d arranged two missions with the INP – one for AUB museum, the other for Sursock.

“They sent us not only experts but the materials we needed to pick up these pieces that had fallen and were trapped inside that showcase. The expert arrived September 4 and with her guidance we were able to go proceed with the first mission, recovering all these pieces and trying to match them with their original photographs from our inventory.

“The showcase was made of glass. The shelves were glass. The vessels themselves were glass. So sifting through those thousands and thousands of shards, working in the middle of COVID, it was a lot of work.”

At the end of this process the curator and her colleagues decided that perhaps 15 of the of 72 damaged pieces could be restored. Panayot says it was at this point the British Museum offered to help.

“We [defined] which pieces could travel and which ones could not, because of their fragility. They said, ‘Okay. We’ll take whatever you can send.’ We ended up preparing eight pieces for travel.”

Another AUB mission was organised with INP, whose conservator returned in June. This intervention has been financed by Switzerland’s ALIPH (the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage).

“Since then, we were able to restore ten pieces, which leaves us with eight for the British Museum, 10 for the INP and two that had survived the blast. These pieces can stand tall again.”

It’s still uncertain what will become of the remains that can’t be restored, but the curator has some ideas.

“We’re partnering with the departments of physics and chemistry, organising a workshop in the Fall on different aspects of the glass – its history, its composition.

“I also have a group of students working on 3D restoration of some of those pieces. It’s a work in progress. It’s trial and error. I’m working with the faculty of engineering and the department of mechanical engineering, and a professor who’s into digitising and digital reconstruction.

“I’m hoping to have at least one or two holograms of those pieces in a virtual form.”

Panayot feels that the artefacts that can’t be restored deserve an exhibition life beyond their destruction.

“For the rest of the pieces that I think will no longer serve any purpose, I hope to open it up to artists. I’m sure a lot of them would love to do something to incorporate those beautiful pieces into contemporary art. For that I’ll need approval from the Director-General of Antiquities.”

Though the few pieces that have been and will be restored aren’t so important in scientific terms, Panayot has no doubts that they warrant exhibition.

“They’re already dated objects,” she says. “We lost beautiful and priceless pieces, for sure, but they’re not going to add to our scientific knowledge. Still, they do have meaning, and several stories to tell. To restore them is to insist upon [the museological worth] of these exhibits.

“If we’re going through the trouble of restoring them, it’s to allow them to tell new stories. They are witnesses of this massacre and this corruption, and everything that goes with it. Now they have a new voice and they can tell those stories as well.”





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