The British Museum displays ancient ships shattered in the Beirut explosion

Eight ancient glass containers shattered in the 2020 Beirut explosion will be on display at the British Museum from Thursday, guiding visitors through the painstaking international project to put them back together.

The vessels, from the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods, have been reconstructed in the world-renowned museum’s conservation laboratories, and will be on display as part of its ‘Shattered Glass of Beirut’ showcase, before returning to Lebanon later this year .

“(It) tells a story of near-destruction and recovery, of resilience and collaboration,” said Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum.

The ships were among 74 contained in a crate at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

The case flipped when the shock wave from the port explosion, which occurred three kilometers (two miles) away on August 4, 2020, hit the building, shattering the glass objects inside.

A team of experts had the daunting task of sorting through each shard of glass, deciding whether it was part of an antique container rather than a display case, and which container it belonged to, Duygu told AFP. Camurcuoglu, chief curator at the British Museum. .

“Everything is pretty much done by hand or by eye – essentially intellectual work. You have to know certain techniques to be able to do this work,” she added.

Once the pieces were sorted, the restorers began the gigantic puzzle exercise of reassembling the containers.

“It’s about using an adhesive to reconstruct the vessels,” Camurcuoglu said. But they couldn’t use just anything.

“We don’t use superglue, we don’t use UHU,” she joked.

– ‘Scars’ –

The most difficult vessels were the “large dish and the Byzantine pitcher”, remembers Camurcuoglu.

Eighteen of the ships have so far been preserved as part of a disaster recovery campaign in Beirut, along with the eight ships in the British Museum and two that emerged unscathed from the fall.

Experts hope that at least half of the 46 remaining objects in Beirut can also be preserved soon.

The collaborative project between the British Museum and the AUB Archaeological Museum began in 2021, following an offer of assistance from the London institution.

The curators agreed early on to make the ships structurally sound but to leave the imperfections caused by the bursting visible, bearing witness to the explosion.

The exhibition will take visitors on the journey of the glass vessels, from the moment of explosion to their display in the famous London museum.

Lighting will be used in the display to illuminate cracks and gaps in the glass.

“We really wanted to highlight the damage to these objects, so that we can all look at the scars and remember how they were brought back together,” Camurcuoglu said.

The vessels are considered important in telling the story of the development of revolutionary glassblowing techniques in Lebanon in the 1st century BC, enabling the mass production of glass objects and making them available for everyday use.

Their restoration, and the teamwork involved, is a source of pride for restaurateurs, Camurcuoglu said.

“We all felt individually that I think we contributed something by working on these objects – by sharing this pain, these emotions.

“So it’s not just about conservation…it’s also about working together and achieving something together,” she added.

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