BEIRUT: Descending into the National Museum’s basement, one is instantly struck by the dimness, the low ceiling and the large empty space – a striking contrast to the bright lights, high ceiling and rows of unique exhibits just one level up.
Plans to rehabilitate the museum’s underground rooms have been on hold since Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War. When the war was over, refurbishment initiatives for the basement were impeded primarily by a lack of funding. That was until Friday, when a project was launched to rehabilitate all 700 square meters of the basement.
“It will all become just like the museum you see here,” Anne-Marie Abeishe, curator of the museum, told The Daily Star as she gestured to the art on the ground floor.
The Italian Development Cooperation, a government organization, is providing 1.2 million euros (about $1.6 million) of funding for the project, with work scheduled to begin next month and finish in a year and a half.
The pieces to be put on show, some of which have never been seen before, are all funerary art – anything associated with the dead and burial rites.
“All of the funerary art will ... begin in 3,000 B.C., maybe even the prehistoric period until the Mamluk period,” Abeishe said. “It will be funerary art through the centuries.”
The pieces already belong to the museum, so the donation will cover the cost of exhibition tags, lighting, visiting paths and podiums. It will also fund the documentation, presentation and promotion of the funerary collection, which will in turn allow for the recruitment of young Lebanese professionals in the field.
The exhibits will include the biggest collection in the world of sarcophagi anthropoid – a sarcophagus featuring the relief of the entombed person’s head – and the colorful Roman frescoes of the Tomb of Tyre.
“The collections there remained hidden from the eyes of the public for a long time,” Culture Minister Raymond Areiji said during the tour Friday.
Following the rehabilitation, he said, the floor would “proudly expose the vestiges of our millennia-old civilization.”
“It is a wonderful museum,” Italian Ambassador to Lebanon Giuseppe Morabito said, likening its style to that of Italian modern art and noting the cultural history shared between the Romans and the Phoenicians.
“Culture is a good investment for Italy and for Lebanon to bring more people [to the country], to create positive change and jobs,” he added.
The ambassador said the museum’s physical reconstruction testified to the “strenuous capacity of this country to face conflicts and social friction without losing track of its valuable origins, history and pride.”
Director General of the Italian Development Cooperation Giampaolo Cantini added that Lebanon’s cultural heritage was of great scale and value, saying the famed museum “discloses with elegance the various civilizations that populated this land and that enabled the creation, along the ages, of the incredibly diverse culture characterizing Lebanon till now.”