Lessons from Beirut on bombed-out art

The museum was in shambles, its offices looted and precious ancient art missing. People thought that the museum staff had sold off the nation's archeological patrimony to European art dealers.

It's not Baghdad in 2003; it was Beirut in 1975.

During Lebanon's tumultuous 15-year civil war, the Beirut National Museum lay in ruins. The museum was hit by artillery shells. Snipers fired from its upper floors, even boring a rifle hole into one of the ancient pieces of art. The fate of its priceless collections was unknown.

"When I saw the damage to Baghdad's museums and libraries, I was depressed because it reminded me of Beirut," says Hareth Boustany, who was curator of the Beirut National Museum from 1970 to 1979. "All of the cultural and intellectual heritage of the world comes from Mesopotamia."

While initial fears of damage to Baghdad's National Museum may have been exaggerated, some 3,000 pieces of art remain missing, according to the US military forces.

Mr. Boustany notes that the level of looting and destruction was far worse in Baghdad than in Beirut. Nevertheless, he says, Beirut's experiences can provide some "valuable lessons for Iraq."

Within a few years of the end of Lebanon's civil war in 1990, the Beirut National Museum had unearthed its hidden treasures, recovered its stolen art, and built a state-of-the-art complex.

"Iraq can do it as well," says Boustany, "if there is the will."

When Lebanon's fighting broke out in April 1975, museum curators quickly realized the civil war wouldn't be over anytime soon. The Beirut National Museum, a beautiful example of 1930s architecture, sat directly along the Green Line dividing east and west Beirut. Artillery shells from the warring Christian and Muslim militias whizzed over the museum nearly everyday, recalls Suzy Hakimian, the museum's current curator.

"I don't think they intentionally bombarded the museum," she says. "But it was standing there in the line of fire."

The building, originally constructed with real Roman columns, began to look like a archeological ruin. Some of the works, such as heavy Phoenician and Roman stone sarcophagi, couldn't be moved. So the museum staff encased them in concrete to protect them from looting and shelling.

"Archeology and concrete don't go very well together," says Hakimian wryly, but they had no choice.

Museum staff collected the intricate gold statutes and other priceless antiquities and buried them in the museum basement. They stored other valuable pieces in the Central Bank vaults.

Only four people in Lebanon knew the location of the ancient artwork. Leaders worried that if word leaked out, criminal gangs or militias would unearth the treasures and sell them.

Then in the late 1980s, curators in Venice, Italy, wanted to exhibit some Lebanese antiquities. Private Lebanese collectors sent artwork to the Venice exhibition, sparking rumors that the National Museum was unloading its collection in Europe.

Boustany, one of the people who knew the true location of the museum collection, faced a particular burden as rumors spread that he was personally profiting from the sale of the museum's works. A former high-ranking government official even accused him in a newspaper article of stealing the artwork. Boustany consulted his attorney about a libel suit.

"He said the first question asked will be, 'Where are the objects?' " recalls Boustany. Because he couldn't yet reveal their location, he decided not to sue.

After the civil war ended in 1990, curators could finally explain that most of the treasures had been saved. But two major problems remained: tracking down items that had been stolen and rebuilding the museum itself.

Working with UNESCO and Interpol, Lebanese authorities located stolen items in various art galleries and antiquity shops in Europe, according to Boustany.

The Ministry of Culture provided funds for rebuilding the museum structure. Supporters formed a nonprofit organization to raise additional funds. Muna Hrawi, wife of Lebanese president Elias Hrawi, became personally involved and helped raise funds from private donors. The museum reopened in 1997.

Curator Hakimian understands that in a country devastated by war, such as Iraq, the government's first priority must be to help the people. Rebuilding hospitals, schools, and power plants is more important than archaeology, she says.

In the short run, "archeology museums can wait," she says. The Beirut National Museum staff started restoring its treasures five years after the end of the war at a total cost so far of $5.5 million. Boustany suggests that Iraqi exiles form a nonprofit organization to raise funds for the country's museums and National Library. "If they wait for the revenue from oil," he says, they will wait many years.

There must be a political commitment to rebuilding the country's patrimony, he adds. Luckily, he says, money shouldn't be a major problem.

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