Night at the Museums illuminates Beirut’s sky
Beirut - The evening of April 8th began as many recent nights in Beirut have — permeated with the smell of garbage, a fetid reminder of the protracted waste management crisis and mounting political and social tensions.
While Lebanon is often viewed through its recurring problematic circumstances, constructive and creative initiatives continue to challenge the pervasively negative perceptions that persist.
Across Lebanon, thousands of people flocked to an assortment of museums that opened their doors for free for one night as part of the third Nuit des Musées — Night at the Museums.
In Beirut’s Achrafieh district, the steps of the Sursock Museum were teeming with visitors excited to encounter historic art and other activities, including musical performances and food stands.
Apeshka Kumar, a Canadian studying Arabic in Beirut, observed that “the city needs more public spaces that are accessible to all sorts of families and all levels of society”.
“Something like this, I think, is really encouraging,” she said. “I have a family, so being able to take my kids out is important. You need a space to experience your city without feeling like you have to pay to enter a club or a bar… I would love it if they did something like this more frequently.”
Organised by the Ministry of Culture, the event had 11 participating museums — the Beirut National Museum, Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum, Minerals Museum (MIM), the USJ Prehistoric Museum, the Museum of the Bank of Lebanon, Villa Audi, the Archaeology Museum of the American University of Beirut, Soap Museum, the Armenian Genocide Orphans’ “Aram Bezikian” Museum, the Pepe Abed Museum and the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Balamand.
Drawing inspiration from a French event called Nuit Blanche, an annual all-night arts festival, Nuit des Musées began three years ago as part of an annual international holiday that celebrates Francophones around the world.
Lynn Tehini, an adviser at the Lebanese Ministry of Culture, said considering a way for people to experience the country creatively while making it more accessible was a key concern.
“One of the targets [was to] reveal how museums can be closer to people than what they may think,” she said. “In Lebanon, it’s not embedded in the culture of people to [casually] visit museums when they have nothing to do. Museums are seen as an activity that children would do in school or a place where tourists would come and visit. We want to start to implement this culture of going to museums.”
In light of the environmental situation, the ministry also took an initiative to promote progressive recycling habits.
“We decided that it was a zero-waste event, so all the waste that was produced by this event was recycled. It was sent the following day to an NGO [non-governmental organisation] that recycled everything that was produced,” Tehini said.
Tehini said the festivities have a more crucial role to play in shaping public attitudes in times of turmoil.
“They want to forget for a night that it’s a very difficult social situation that the country is passing through right now,” she said.
Having recently undergone an extensive renovation, the Sursock Museum was one of the newcomers to this year’s Nuit des Musées.
“You could say that it (the event) comes as a kind of contrast to what is happening politically within the city’s landscape,” said Muriel Kahwagi, the head of communications at the museum. “At the same time, I think this isn’t the first time that Lebanon counters tension, with something really creative. I think it’s something that’s embedded within the history of the country.
“It was always like this. Even during the war, you had galleries opening up. It looked like it’s a contradiction but in a way it was a kind of necessity. It is in a time of crisis that you realise you need to have cultural initiatives.”
The success of the first two editions of Nuit des Musées was an incentive to continue in 2016 and officials at the Sursock were keen to take part.
“I think it’s really great to see people appropriate these spaces and how the boundaries blur,” Kahwagi said. “It’s essential to have museums be part of the public sphere. Whoever you are, you enter this space and feel like it’s yours. “
For her, nationwide events of this scale and magnitude are essential to solidify the link that people have with cultural institutions despite regional and local tensions.
“The cultural infrastructure of the country has suffered for a long time but now it’s flourishing,” she said. “You have so many galleries opening up and a lot of initiatives taking place. So yes, an event of this scale definitely helps.”