Nabu museum offers new attraction in northern Lebanon
EL HERI - “It is meant to fill a cultural gap, encourage the public to learn about art and, at the same time, satisfy our aspiration to leave a legacy of decency,” said Jawad Adra, co-founder of the Nabu Museum in summarising the aim of the new private gallery that recently opened in El Heri in northern Lebanon.
Named after the Mesopotamian patron god of scribes, literacy and wisdom, the museum, which is on a private beach, uniquely displays millennia-old antiquities from the Levant and Mesopotamia alongside local and regional modern art. The works are from the private collections of Adra and his two partners, Fida Jdeed and Badr el-Hage.
“In addition to being long-time friends, the three of us have in common this fascination with the history of the region and what is commonly known as the cradle of civilisation,” Adra said.
“We happen to have this nice property on the coast and we thought that we can either leave it as it is or build a horrendous, ugly building like other structures that litter the Lebanese coast from Halba to Tyre (north to south) or do something different that would send a message that we (in the region) deserve better.”
The inaugural exhibit, “Millennia of Creativity,” featured some 400 artefacts from the early Bronze and Iron ages and from the Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Muslim epochs, in addition to works by contemporary Arab artists from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt.
Admission to the museum is free. “We want to make art accessible to all with the hope that if one can appreciate the beauty of art from a young age, he will be less inclined to commit violence or destroy heritage,” Adra said. “This is a way to help preserve culture and heritage in a region devastated by conflicts and war.”
The futuristic structure of the two-storey building and its enveloping facade in weathering steel, designed by Iraqi artists Mahmoud Obaidi and Dia Azzawi, stand out among the concrete and stone buildings in the area.
The interior of the building is flooded by sunlight flowing from large bay windows and a tall glass opening in the metal-and-concrete structure provides a view through the museum’s interior and out to the sea.
“The facade was done as if it is a piece of art or sculpture. It stands as Dia Azzawi’s biggest and most monumental sculpture,” said museum guide Nadine Khoury.
The museum space was boldly conceived by Obaidi as a simple cube with a sizeable open interior that can be easily adapted for various exhibitions.
The works on display are only a fraction of the founders’ private collections and other works are to be rotated in for future exhibitions. “The plan is to have two shows per year under different themes,” Khoury said.
Visitors to the Nabu Museum can admire a unique selection of Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform tablets that display some of the earliest forms of writing and Phoenician steles dating from 2330-500BC. The tablets recount epic tales and give indications of economic systems, information on ethnic groups and maps of ancient cities.
In an adjacent glass case a selection of oil lamps dating back thousands of years are displayed in a sequence that shows the development of the craft time from the most primitive object — a moulded piece of clay — to something more sophisticated and artistic, Khoury explained.
Three-millennia-old Phoenician statues of a considerable size found during underwater excavations in southern Lebanon stand like sentinels on the ground floor. “One can still see the seashell and limescale deposits on them,” Khoury said.
On the rooftop is an installation by Obaidi, “Ford 71.” It depicts a military vehicle in weathering steel carrying a Mesopotamian bust. “The US Army used such vehicles in Iraq,” Khoury said. “It is really a commentary by the Iraqi artist about the American occupation and all the violence that happened there, including the destruction of Iraq’s archaeology, history and heritage.”
Adra started his collection in the 1980s by purchasing items from auction houses and antiquaries in Europe and the United States. He said the items were registered and shipped legally through Beirut airport.
“Displaying the collection in public is one way of combating smuggling of antiquities because one becomes accountable. The idea is also to encourage other collectors to do the same,” Adra said.
In recent years, part of the region’s cultural heritage has been destroyed or looted by armed groups, especially in Syria and Iraq.
The museum received more than 5,000 visitors in less than four weeks since its opening at the end of September. “This is an indication that there is an interest in art. Many people said you give us hope in a region scarred by conflict and brutality,” Adra said.
For more information, visit www.nabumuseum.com.