Life support for masterpieces on the edge

One year on from the catastrophic port explosion in Beirut, which killed at least 200 people and injured 6,500 more, there has been little progress. The country, already mired in financial and health crises, is still shattered; the investigation into the blast — caused by the accidental detonation of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate improperly stored in a warehouse — stymied by a government many perceive as corrupt.

There are pockets of positive news, however. Among them is the restoration of ancient glass artefacts housed in the Archaeological Museum of the American University of Beirut, located 3km west of the port. One key portion of the restoration work has been supported by the British Museum, which secured a €25,000 grant from the Tefaf Museum Restoration Fund to carry out the repair of eight vessels dating from the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods.

The case of glass vessels displayed at the Archaeological Museum before the explosion © Courtesy of the AUB Office of Communications and Archaeological Museum

While much of the Archaeological Museum’s collection was undamaged in the blast, a vitrine of 74 of its most historically significant glass objects was toppled, destroying all but two vessels. As soon as she saw the devastation, the museum’s curator, Nadine Panayot, resolved to salvage as many artefacts as she could.

“With all of the injustices we have gone through in Lebanon, I felt, my god, these vessels have stories to tell,” she says. “They have been witnesses to our lives for the past 2,000 years — they survived the tsunami of 551 ACE and numerous wars. All it took was a corrupt government to lose them all.” 

After securing the building and the rest of the collection, Panayot says she started to call her contacts overseas for help with equipment to recover the vessels: gloves, masks and acid-free paper and boxes. “I couldn’t just pick up the pieces with my bare hands, the iridescence is so fragile, it’s like the powder that comes off a butterfly’s wings,” she says. Accessing funds within Beirut has been further complicated by the financial crisis.

Three people, two crouching, look at shards of glass on the floor
Archaeological Museum Curator Nadine Panayot (right) assessing the fallen display case © Courtesy of the AUB Office of Communications and Archaeological Museum

At the same time, the British Museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, tasked two of his curators in the Middle Eastern department, Jamie Fraser and Zeina Klink-Hoppe, to see if the London institution could assist in Beirut. “We were all so shocked to see those images coming out of Lebanon,” Fraser remembers. “The next day we were in touch with Nadine Panayot, who told us the Archaeological Museum didn’t have the expertise and the facilities to carry out this very technical conservation, so the project began there.”

Crucially, funding was secured earlier this year. The New York art dealer Rachel Kaminsky, who is on the committee for the Tefaf Museum Restoration Fund, says it was a unanimous decision to support the project. “The fact the objects were from antiquity was really important, as was the idea of a collaboration between the Archaeological Museum in Beirut and the British Museum,” she says. “And of course, that we could somehow help this museum, which had suffered this catastrophe, played a huge part.” 

The €25,000 given to the British Museum will cover the shipping, restoration and technical analysis of four rare bowls, a perfume flask and a beaker from the imperial Roman period, a Byzantine jug and an elite Islamic lustre flask — objects which all attest to the invention of glass-blowing technology in and around what is now Lebanon in the first century AD and to the beginning of the mass production of glassware.

A woman arranges small delicate pieces of glass on a white piece of paper
Conservator Claire Cuyaubère assisting with ‘puzzle-work’ reconstructions of glass vessels © Courtesy of the AUB Office of Communications and Archaeological Museum

The eight objects deemed robust enough to travel to London were identified after a complex “puzzling” process to match up the fragments, led by Claire Cuyaubère, a conservator at the Institut National du Patrimoine. A further 20 vessels have already been restored by the French institute, which was among the first to send aid after the blast. There are also plans to send a Lebanon-based curator to train alongside a glass conservator at the British Museum, though additional funds are being sought for the traineeship. “The whole gesture has been absolutely wonderful and extremely humane,” Panayot says. 

With the fragments now wrapped and ready to be shipped to London, the vessels should be delivered to the British Museum by the end of the year, though bureaucratic procedures, both in the UK and Lebanon, have proved lengthy.

A memorandum of agreement has been drawn up between the two museums, which covers the loan of the fragmented vessels, the conservation work (which is expected to take around four months), any scientific research and a small display of the vessels at the British Museum once restored, organised by Fraser and Panayot.

“It’s a complicated challenge, but an exhilarating one,” Fraser says, adding that the exhibition will reflect both what the vessels “represent to the ancient world of glass manufacturing as well as the modern story of the crises facing Beirut”.

A severe-looking older man in a black robe and hat
Édouard Manet ‘Portrait of Monsieur Jules Dejouy’ (1879) © Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales

The Tefaf Restoration Fund, which will mark its 10-year anniversary in 2022, had a record number of applications this year — 39 in total — according to Kaminsky. But she welcomes more interest from Africa, Asia and South America in the future. Each year €50,000 is allocated to projects — usually two a year — and the second recipient of this year’s grant is Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales, awarded €20,000 to restore an 1879 portrait by Edouard Manet of his cousin, Jules Dejouy.

Showing a stern, uptight lawyer who was Manet’s supporter and later executor, the portrait was acquired by the Welsh museum in lieu of death duties in 2020. Adam Webster, chief conservator, hopes the cleaning and restoration will reveal “the subtlety in the painting and . . . a sense of depth”.

Across the world, Panayot is even more matter of fact. “Honestly speaking, as a curator, restoring these objects does not have any meaning, but restoring them to give them a voice again, to bear witness to what was inflicted on Lebanon, that makes a whole lot of sense to me,” she says.

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