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Sursock Museum to reopen its doors in 2012
The renovations will preserve the facade of the Nicolas Sursock Museum.
The renovations will preserve the facade of the Nicolas Sursock Museum.
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BEIRUT: After years of delays the renovation of the Nicolas Sursock Museum in Ashrafieh, a project expected to double the exhibition space and cost $12-14 million, is set to be completed toward the end of 2012, according to the chief architect behind the project.

“The whole building was about 1,500 square meters and now we are adding more than 7,500 square meters but all underground,” explained Jacques Aboukhaled of JA Designs, chief architect behind the project in collaboration with French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte.

The project was launched in 2000, but because of delays such as the 2006 war, groundbreaking only took place in 2008. The renovation will add four underground floors to the museum below the courtyard area in front of the building. In addition to parking for museum staff and the technical staging and storage facilities for the collection, new public areas being built include a 160-seat auditorium and a 600-square-meter room for the museum’s main temporary exhibitions.

The museum will continue to display its permanent collection on the ground level, while the first floor exhibition space, which used to be the main temporary exhibition hall, will now be an additional, dynamic space to show more of the permanent collection or offer second temporary exhibitions.

Maintaining the character and look of the building while updating the fixtures of the exhibition spaces is crucial to the renovation, according the Aboukhaled: “We are keeping the old building as it was and the front [of the building] as it was kept in the 60s when they did the first renovation.”

The building was constructed in the late 19th century by Nicolas Sursock as a private villa. Upon his death in 1961, it became a museum and underwent its first, and until now, only renovation.

“What was kept from the first renovation is kept 100 percent … but we are making use of all the square meters available because we need them for the museum. They didn’t have enough space for their collection,” Aboukhaled added.

For example, the façade of the building, including its grand staircase, and the main floor of the building, its “etage noble” with famous stained glass windows and the salon arab, will be preserved.

“We kept the heart of the first floor more or less as it used to be,” while updating the building with “all the new technology … because it is a museum that will be finished in 2012,” he said.

But when the digging first began almost three years ago, the public reacted with skepticism over the project.

“When we took out the round staircase at the entrance, everyone was screaming, ‘What are they building? What are they doing?’ They thought that we were building a car park for a building next door,” laughed Aboukhaled, adding that, in reality, they were reconstructing and reinforcing the staircase.

The most significant change, aside from the underground floors, will be the addition of a contemporary-style cafeteria and bookshop in the courtyard of the building. The addition has specifically been designed to look clean and simple so as not to compete with the ornate facade of the museum.

“We thought it was quite important to have the contrast because it’s a renovation that is finished today, 2012, and it has to mark our time or materials, but be extremely simple and very neutral so that we highlight the old part,” Aboukhaled said of the new cafeteria.

The project, Aboukhaled insists, is about creating the highest quality space for people to enjoy the Sursock and traveling collections.

“In general when you go into a museum it’s not to see the architecture, it’s to see what is in it and you can highlight it by very clean and very simple backgrounds – so that’s what we have.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 11, 2011, on page 12.
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