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Among the great cultural intermediaries, there are individuals who are propelled by their immense passion, dedicating their lives to research and transmission. When one crosses the imposing gate of the Main Gate at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and enters the lair of this esteemed institution, 160 years of history catch up in this oasis of tranquility and knowledge. The narrative deepens when one steps into its Archaeological Museum, a place even older than Lebanon itself, and listens to the history and challenges recounted by its curator since September 2020.

This impressive journey, already spanning three decades of experience in both fieldwork and academia, is now met with both recognition and a new challenge. Firstly, taking the helm of a heritage-laden institution, the Museum, dating back to 1868, is the third oldest in the region following those in Cairo and Istanbul. It deserves to reclaim its rightful place as a benchmark alongside leading global and university museums. Furthermore, it is crucial to make it accessible to the public through innovative programming and events, all within a genuine perspective of engagement and heritage preservation, a real struggle in our country.

The new custodian, Dr. Nadine Panayot, was recently awarded the Knight of the Arts and Letters insignia, an honor bestowed by the French Ministry of Culture, represented by Mr. Jean-François Hébert, Director General of Heritage and Architecture. This recognition was in acknowledgment of her numerous contributions and commitments to art, heritage, cultural preservation, and literature.

A Doctor in Archaeology, Classical Civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Near East, she has for over 20 years held the position of Director of the Department of Archaeology and Museology at the University of Balamand. Her name is inextricably linked to the archaeological site of Enfeh, where she actively led the excavations, and the Ethnographic Museum, which she co-founded and managed from 2009 to 2020. The site of Enfeh continues to divulge its treasures; recently, prehistoric lithic material, Chalcolithic funeral jars, Byzantine-era oil presses, and fortifications from the Crusades were unearthed.

The regional collection of the AUB Archaeological Museum boasts a significant number of objects, of which only 2,500 are on display, sourced from the region and covering all periods. The acquisition of these collections, whether by donations, purchases, or excavations, is often as thrilling as a detective investigation, filled with leads, dead ends, anecdotes, and political stakes. As many stories could be told as there are artifacts or layers of history. Together with her research team, she launched a program called “The Hidden Stories of the Archaeological Museum.” One of the most captivating stories is that of the first core of the collection: a donation of 135 objects given to the institution a few years after its opening by the American consul in Cyprus, Luigi Palma di Cesnola, a military archaeologist of Italian descent. He would later sell a collection of 33,000 objects excavated from the site of Kourion in Larnaca to the Metropolitan Museum before becoming the director of the MET a few years later.

Today, the Museum’s collection is no longer expected to grow, primarily because the 1972 UNESCO Convention strictly regulated acquisitions between countries, and Lebanon is a signatory. But it is also an ethical and political choice by the curator, who is regularly offered donations from different countries in the region, knowing these countries have suffered significant looting in recent wars. She asserts that no acquisition decisions will be made until peace is established in the Middle East. This choice is often circumvented by some countries or individuals who own private collections, sparking regular debates and controversies.

Since September 2020, Nadine Panayot can finally breathe a sigh of relief and dedicate herself to the preservation and promotion of the Museum’s heritage. This date marked a state of emergency due to the cataclysm of the August 4 explosion, which devastated the museums of Beirut. She established a crisis management cell to intervene urgently on the damaged or destroyed museum collections, particularly those of the Sursock and AUB Museums. Collaborating with specialized organizations such as ALIPH and the National Heritage Institute (INP) France, she conducted significant conservation and restoration operations. At Sursock, 55 works (including canvases and manuscripts) were saved, while at the AUB, 72 glass pieces shattered in their display case underwent an extraordinary restoration effort. This delicate work requiring surgical precision can only be undertaken by the most skilled specialists. Thanks to this incredible reconstruction effort (12 glasses restored by an INP team dispatched to the site, 8 by a team from the British Museum in London, and 6 due to the extraordinary work of the Chief Conservator of Glass from the Corning Museum in NY), a total of 8 pieces were exhibited for three months in the prestigious Room 3 of the British Museum, attracting an unprecedented number of visitors.

An article written by Maya Trad.