Shattered glass of Beirut goes on display at British Museum - Museums Association

Shattered glass of Beirut goes on display at British Museum

Tefaf supported conservation of objects damaged in 2020 explosion
A conservator studies the "puzzle-work" of reassembling hundreds of glass fragments and shards
A conservator studies the "puzzle-work" of reassembling hundreds of glass fragments and shards

The British Museum, London, has conserved eight glass vessels damaged in the 2020 port explosion with support of the European Fine Art Foundation (Tefaf). Shattered Glass of Beirut is on show in the Asahi Shimbun Displays until 23 October, before the objects return to their country of origin.

The objects were salvaged from a destroyed case in the Archaeological Museum at the American University of Beirut, which was damaged by an explosion in Lebanon on 4 August 2020. The case displayed classical and Islamic glass vessels.

The glass vessels were shattered into hundreds of fragments by the explosion, but this new collaboration between the British Museum and Tefaf will see them being put back together in the museum’s laboratories.

The eight objects tell the story of the development of glass-blowing technology in Lebanon in the 1st century BCE, a period that saw glass production revolutionised with mass production, making an elite material available for domestic use. Conservators chose to leave the imperfections caused by the shattering visible because the damage from the explosion is now part of the objects' history. 

The shattering has also allowed further scientific research. As the objects were broken, the internal surfaces of the vessels became accessible and it has been discovered that some the vessels were produced from recycled glass.

The Archaeological Museum lay 3.2km from the port explosion and sustained heavy damage to its windows and doors. The case the vessels were displayed in contained 74 Roman, Byzantine and Islamic period glass vessels. Most vessels were shattered beyond repair with only 15 being identified as salvageable. Of these, only eight are safe to travel to the British Museum, which has the facilities and expertise to restore and conserve these items.

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After the blast, Claire Cuyaubère, a conservator from the French Institut National du Patrimoine oversaw the initial work by Archaeological Museum staff to carefully collect and categorise the shards of ancient glass from the mixed debris, which included glass from the display case and surrounding windows.

She returned to Beirut in July 2021 to lead the “puzzle-work” of this material, identifying and matching broken shards from each vessel, and identifying those suitable for shipment to London. The puzzle-work was supported by the Friends of the Middle East Department at the British Museum.

Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, said: “Like the rest of the world, we looked on in horror at the devastating scenes in Beirut in August 2020. We immediately offered the assistance of the British Museum to colleagues in the city. We’re pleased to be able to provide the expertise and resources of the British Museum to restore these important ancient objects so they can be enjoyed in Lebanon for many more years to come.”

Hidde van Seggelen, president of Tefaf, said: “The destruction of these works of art was a terrible consequence of a larger tragedy for the people of Beirut. We are proud to support the restoration of the glass vessels through Tefaf’s Museum Restoration Fund, as these objects hold immense historical, artistic and cultural significance. Their return to their rightful form is a powerful symbol of healing and resilience after disaster.”

Nadine Panayot, curator of the Archaeological Museum, American University of Beirut, said: “The loss of many glass tableware vessels dating back to the Roman period, some as early as the 1st century BCE, represents a priceless cultural loss for Lebanon and the Near East.

“We are extremely grateful for the British Museum’s contribution to the restoration of eight of the glass vessels of the AUB Archaeological Museum that were shattered by the Beirut port explosion. My thanks go to Tefaf as well for their generosity and their support of the project.”

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