LONDON — The cataclysmic explosion that shook Beirut last August killed more than 200 people and injured thousands. It also inflicted enduring damage on invaluable pieces of Lebanon’s culture and heritage.
Nearly 130 objects were destroyed in two museums near the site of the blast — the Sursock Museum of modern and contemporary art (founded by a Lebanese collector), and the American University of Beirut Archaeological Museum. At the latter, 72 precious glass vessels, some nearly 2,000 years old, were smashed.
Eight of the vessels will now be restored at the British Museum, thanks to a grant of 25,000 euros (about $29,475) from the TEFAF Museum Restoration Fund, set up in 2012 to help preserve major museum artworks. The oldest vessel is a ribbed bowl (dated 50 to 70 A.D.) from the Imperial Roman period that was produced locally. It is one of a half-dozen Imperial Roman vessels in the batch; the other two are an early Islamic flask and an early Byzantine jug.
“It’s awful to see something that has survived so long in antiquity suddenly being broken,” said Sandra Smith, head of the British Museum’s collections care department, which will carry out the restoration.
She described the repairs as “some of the most complex types of glass conservation” that her team had ever undertaken. Each piece will take an average of 60 hours to reconstruct, and the project as a whole will take about four months. The vessels will leave Beirut for London in the next few months, once the paperwork and insurance have been completed.
To Nadine Panayot, the curator in charge of the AUB Archaeological Museum, the explosions in 2020 were both a personal and a professional trauma. She had only just been appointed to the job and was a month away from starting it when, at around 6 p.m. on Aug. 4, nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate blew up in the port of Beirut.
“I thought it was another car bomb,” said Ms. Panayot, who was driving through Beirut at the time. “I heard the first and then the second bomb, and then I couldn’t see anything in front of my car, because there were fumes.”
While her husband and three daughters were unharmed, she returned to her apartment and found windows and blinds and a sliding door smashed, and her 14-year-old daughter, who had been home alone, in a state of complete panic.
The next day, she went to the museum, a century-old stone building with extra-high ceilings and tall, wood-framed windows. Seventeen windows and five doors had been blown out. The collections were intact except for a single metal-framed glass vitrine, which had “fallen facedown, trapping inside of it 74 pieces,” she recalled. Only two tiny goblets in the vitrine survived the blast, she said, adding that otherwise, “I was swimming in a sea of glass.”
Ms. Panayot reached out to the Institut National du Patrimoine in Paris, which quickly sent material and an expert restorer. The French restorer, the museum team and a group of volunteers sifted through thousands of glass shards from the windows, the vitrine and the ancient vessels. Using photographs, they matched every tiny piece of antique glass with the original treasure. Ten objects were restored at the museum in Beirut, and eight more were identified as fit for travel to London once funding came through from TEFAF.
The Beirut glass restoration project (submitted by the British Museum) was unanimously chosen from around 40 grant applications by the TEFAF committee of experts, said Hidde van Seggelen, chairman of TEFAF’s executive committee. The eligibility criteria had been broadened this year to include public museums anywhere in the world, not only those visiting TEFAF Maastricht, as were the criteria up to 2019. The other winning project was a painting by Édouard Manet at the National Museum Wales.
“The impact of the catastrophe was enormous, and we are convinced that it is important to support such an essential project in difficult times,” Mr. van Seggelen said in an email interview.
How significant are these pieces? “This is the epicenter of where glass blowing developed, and these vessels represent that,” said Jamie Fraser, curator for the ancient Levant and Anatolia at the British Museum.
They also tell an important contemporary tale, he added.
“Although the story is tragic, and it’s really tragic, the scars of these broken vessels, once restored, are incredibly powerful,” Mr. Fraser said. Archaeological projects “define the Middle East by what it has lost.”
“An artifact in a museum shouldn’t sit there getting dusty, being inert and dead,” he explained. “Artifacts in museums are dynamic. They take on their meaning and their context and are constantly changed and tell different stories.”
Ms. Smith said the restoration was not a simple process of gluing glass fragments back together. Her teams had to make sure that “whatever we apply to the glass won’t cause it to be damaged, and that it will last for a long time so that we’re not suddenly having to take it apart again in five years,” she said. The process also must be “reversible, so if for example another piece was found and we wanted to get that piece into that vessel, we can take it apart without doing any damage.”
Post-restoration, the vessels will go on display at the British Museum in an exhibition co-curated by Ms. Panayot and Mr. Fraser, “not just to show the technology of glass blowing and what Roman glass looked like, but to talk through the process of how they were put back together, what they represent, and the story of Beirut at the moment,” he said.
After that, Mr. Fraser added, “the vessels go back to Beirut where they belong.”