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A Worrying Start for Lebanon’s First Memory Museum

Clumsy Peace-building initiatives can have a counterproductive and damaging effect on local communities and perpetuate post-conflict trauma, amplify tensions and open old grievances within a larger national context.

.....It is troubling therefore, to read an Article in The Economist this week (A Museum of Memory in Beirut gets off to a Troubled Start, No one can agree what Beit Beirut is for or what objects should be on display there ). The article if correct reports the difficulties the Beit Beirut Museum in Lebanon faces, explaining that,

"The building, which was expropriated by the Beirut municipality in 2003 and renovated with over $18m of public funds, is opening on a temporary basis, with no board, no director, no cultural policy, no permanent collection and no staff—not even a maintenance team"... (The Economist)

"In the absence of a director, there is no cohesive vision for the building; it will open until the end of the year as a gallery space, rather than as a museum. Without employees, the restaurant, library and other amenities will remain closed. The municipality has asked exhibitors to supply their own manpower and to choose their own opening hours"....... explaining further that "Without a permanent collection, though, it is not really a museum, yet agreeing on which objects should be in that collection is easier said than done".

Earlier this year UNIFORM NOVEMBER posted an article expressing concerns over the building's seemingly confused role as a premature 'National Building' vehicle at the expense of a much needed peace-building opportunity. (Read Here)

This article highlights a worrying development. The building, its location and the complicated post-conflict narratives and memories embedded within it, are of huge peace-building potential.

..............It could be argued that the initial approach to developing Beit Beirut shows signs for concern, a process highlighting Richmond’s criticism of the Liberal peacebuilding in post conflict environments, in its “absence of local ownership and insufficient consultation with local stakeholders” (Newman, Paris and Richmond, 2009).The Beit Beirut Museum started and took 22 years to pull together with the help from Lebanese Ministry of Culture, the Italian Government, the ‘Institut d’Amenagement et d’Urbanisme de la Region Ilede- France (IAURIF), the World Monuments fund of New York and the Beirut municipality which purchased the site in 2006 for $300 million. The design project was publicly unveiled in April 2010 during a dinner held by the President of the Council of Ministers, Saad Hariri at the Grand Serail in honour and in the presence of the Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë. (Public Launch of Project Beit Beirut, 2010). The project commission was awarded to an established architect from Beirut, Youssef Haider who had worked in France and studied at the school of architecture at Paris La Villette in 1988, with emphasis on museography and scenography. This seems to be a top-down elite driven approach, regardless of the involvement of a small number of heritage conservation groups present in Beirut. Brones argues that “[a]s is usually the case, the importance of preserving the building came to light only once it was directly threatened by destruction. The various strategies of the owners as well as those of the public powers, undertaken in conjunction with local associations, led to a kind of ‘struggle for heritage’. What is very particular and striking in this case is that the building rapidly became a new stake for Beirut’s municipality and Governorate” (Brones, 2012). Moreover, a large number of local inhabitants and small business owners when asked, reluctantly suggested that “[i]nstead of renovating it, they should leave it as is. What better way to remind people of the destruction of war?” (Anon, 2009)

Morover, the building's use as a snipers nest during the conflict has seemingly beguiled the client and design-team dynamic and choices , leading them to a situation where it looks as if 'they may have take their eye off the ball'. Which means, the museum team will have to work harder now, to ensure legitimate local ownership and to enhance the buildings peace-building narrative.... read more

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