In 1919, French officer Raymond Weill received a collection of antiquities that were found in and around the vicinity of Beirut. The findings were stored in rooms of the German Deaconesses Building on Georges Picot Street. In 1920, at the beginning of the French Mandate, the authorities decided the establishment of the Archaeological and Fine Arts Service began assembling archaeological items. As more and more items were discovered, it was decided in 1923 to establish a committee, whose mission was to build a museum in Beirut. The founding members began collecting funds after agreeing upon the purchase of a land on Damascus road, next to Beirut’s racing track. A design contest was organized and the building project was attributed to two architects: Antoine Nahas and Pierre Leprince-Ringuet. The design reflected its age: it was inspired by the very popular pharaonic architecture in the 1930’s.
The first collections were exhibited five years later. The Second World War postponed the inauguration of the museum until May 27th 1942 in the presence of Lebanese President Alfred Naccache and the country’s intellectual elite. The National Museum in Beirut is considered to be one of the most important and richest museums of the Middle East. Phoenician writings and sarcophagi alongside ceramics, mosaics, treasures and coins are part of its collection. With the outbreak of the Lebanese war in 1975, the museum closed its doors and the Damascus road became a demarcation which divided Beirut in two: East and West Beirut. This is why the curator of the museum, the prince Maurice Shehab, assisted by his wife, placed the vulnerable small pieces, which could be stolen, in the museum’s storerooms that were sealed with cement walls. Whoever does not know the museum can never find the storerooms. The larger items were protected by a wooden skeleton that was later covered by concrete coating. As the fighting went on, the museum became a military outpost. Its walls were desecrated and part of its ceiling collapsed. But the warriors did not realize that they were sitting on concrete walls hiding Lebanon’s most important archaeological findings.
At the end of the war in 1991, the museum was suffering from massive destruction. The water table rose to the storerooms. It raised the humidity levels making the situation of the small hidden items very critical after the closing of the building for 15 years. The museum was entirely restored between 1995 and 1999 through the efforts of the National Foundation collaborating with the ministry of culture-the Directorate General of Antiquities. The museum was reopened for the first time in 1997 in an effort to place the Lebanese people on the road to reconciliation in the presence of the president of the republic Elias Haraoui. The museum closed again its doors in 1998 for the completion of the rehabilitation works and was reopened definitely and officially in 1999 under the mandate of the president of the republic Emile Lahoud.
The museum’s rehabilitation and reopening symbolize the rebirth of Lebanon and of its cultural life and its renaissance from the long wars. The national museum is the symbol of the national unity and the guardian of the common history of all the Lebanese.