Nelida Nassar 10.08.2013
Banners are flying from the Jesuit University’s new Innovation and Sport Campus, a stone’s throw from the Beirut National Museum and across from the Lebanese National Security Headquarters and the French Cultural Center. They are jubilantly welcoming the most recent gem in the neighborhood, the Museum of Minerals, MIM.
The brainchild of Mr. Salim Eddé, cofounder of the Murex software company, the museum was created with help from his alma mater, the Jesuit University, and its rector, Father René Chamussy, who was able to obtain the site for it to be built on. The museum, which opens on 12 October 2013, will surely add to the city’s cultural luster, and hopefully will attract tourists and art lovers from around the world. Situated near both the Beirut National Museum and the Museum of Memory now under restoration and expansion, it will eventually be part of a “museum mile” not unlike the one in New York City.
The space itself, a 1,300 m² underground custom-made architectural magnum opus by Fadlo Dagher Architecture, is designed not just to hold Eddé’s large collection of 1,480 pieces of mineral art but also to serve as a stand-alone destination, a pilgrimage site for the cognoscenti on a par with the Pierre and Marie Curie University Mineral Museum, at the Jussieu Campus in Paris, and the Houston Natural History Museum in Texas, two museums which have influenced and share similar features with MIM. They are places where visitors do more than just see the art and leave; instead, they are encouraged to linger, wander, eat, have a drink, and shop.
Stacked on two-levels and lying mostly underground, the museum is composed of two parts: a public space and the museum per se. The public space includes a large hall, a thematic room, and a gift shop. The actual museum portion, avoiding the monotony of traditional linear display, consists of seven different beautifully choreographed clusters: the entrance, the atrium hall, the exhibition area, the radioactive minerals, the trophy showcase, the treasure room, and the geographical display.
The visitor is welcomed into the atrium area, where exhibition cases present a selection of minerals designed to spark the visitor’s curiosity and tempt him/her to go further. Inspired by the work of the English mathematician Penrose, a beautifully crafted tri-dimensional wall made of brushed plates arranged at different angles separate the atrium from the rest of the clusters. The space then unfolds into a “hall of nine classes,” where each class is represented by one single large mineral according to their chemical composition thus following the traditional minerals classification system. Several interactive screens explain what a mineral is and how it is formed, and also provide much other related information.
The guest then proceeds into the main exhibition area, where several mineral species of each class are displayed. A special section has been devoted to radioactive minerals containing uranium and thorium, the two major radioactive elements found in nature. An auto-run screen explains what radioactivity and fission are. Then comes the trophy room, which holds about 30 specimens considered to be the best examples of their species, including famous specimens which were purchased after fierce auction battles. Acquired from old and prestigious collections the pieces come from across the globe, it is Miguel Romero’s collection that was dismantled by the heirs in 2008 ; the Joseph A. Freilich auction at Sotheby’s, New York, in 2001 or those of Steve Smale, Wilber, Weill and Horner .
Next the visitor continues to the treasure room with its 21 columnar showcases. Here a mysterious ambiance prevails; the lighting is designed to enhance the presence and appearance of the most precious minerals: gold, silver, emerald, ruby, topaz, aquamarine, etc., which dazzle the eye with their exquisite beauty. The guest’s trajectory ends at the geographic section, where the minerals are exhibited by continent and country.
Dagher has clearly focused on rethinking the museum experience and has learned some very valuable lessons for this small museum from existing institutions. He has structured the museum in a warm and inviting manner, yet one which still manages to convey certain monumentality in its architectural enfilades, particularly in the treasure room. This museum use of the latest technological devices should prove equally inviting to children, the Millennial/Y generation, and older adults.
MIM is exclusively centered on mineral art, and the collection has been one of Eddé’s all-consuming passions. “I inherited my passion for collecting from my father, who collected oriental rugs, old coins, etc.; it is probably from my grandmother that I got the idea for the museum. As the collection grew, I couldn’t stop thinking of what she often said of people accumulating material things: “يا تيتا ما بعمرو حداً أخد شي معو “, that is to say: “My grandson, no one has ever taken anything with him (into the afterlife).” Heeding her words and guided especially by a desire to share my passion with the greatest number of people, in 2003 I began to consider creating a museum of mineralogy.”
The museum’s ultimate aim is to link mineral art with history, and more broadly, aesthetics and art, science and mathematics with industry and economy – and to join all of them with the immediate experience of nature in a compelling and accessible way, but one that still keeps the art very much in the foreground. Indeed, the museum’s compelling collection is only part of the experience it can provide. The grounds offer walking paths within the University campus, and the museum cafe will be a worthy addition to the local dining scene. There is also a gift shop, but is not a requisite stop on visitor’s walk through the galleries, as it is placed on a separate floor all together.
For many people, a visit to the MIM may be their first experience in a museum, says its curator, Suzy Hakimian. One of the most challenging issues facing the museum may be how high to set its admission price. According to consumer value studies, if the experience is superlative and truly satisfies visitors’ needs, people will not perceive price as a barrier. And yet, there are institutions that focus on providing free or low-cost learning experiences to visitors. Eddé wishes to draw on both models. In order “to have the lowest possible admission entry fee but still be able to cover the annual operating costs” he hopes “that the space will attract conferences and corporate events, along with temporary exhibits in the special room built for that purpose and the jewelry sold in the shop should also help in that regard. The purpose is to make the museum accessible to the widest possible audience in Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world (therefore the signage and pamphlets are trilingual: Arabic-French-English), and not only to people used to going to museums.”
Presently, MIM Museum does not have a board of trustees or any donors. Eddé has been financing the project entirety on his own. “My first goal was to complete the museum and open it to the public. Obviously, the next step will be to establish a more standard form of management for it by creating a board of trustees or a waqf, a foundation that will survive me. Will trustees become potential donors? I don’t know yet to what extent I can recruit people willing to donate to this unusual venture. A mineral museum remains a rarity in the world of museums, and all the more so in our region.”
Eddé is fully aware that a mineral museum represents financial as well as pedagogical challenges as “the subject exhibited is not an easy one. Even modern science finds it a major challenge to explain how the solid matter that surrounds us takes form.” To make it more accessible, he has concentrated on the aesthetic side, carefully selecting minerals for the beauty of their geometry, the wide palette of their colors and shapes, etc. “Since it is a form of beauty that predates mankind by millions of years and that is likely to survive it, it is something neutral that everyone can appreciate, as opposed to, say, op art, modern art, antiques, religious art, or any other-man made creation. And by lowering the entry fee, my bet is that the man on the street will be lured in. If he likes what he sees, the mathematical, scientific, economical aspects could open up for him – if he cares to [pursue them]. Highlighting first the scientific side of the museum would, I think, not have been the optimal thing to do.”
Eddé is one of a very small number of Lebanese art patrons willing to share their collections with a wider audience, let alone finance an ambitious project such as a museum. Eddé’s unprecedented example, intoxicating enthusiasm and energy will hopefully inspire many more Lebanese collectors to become patrons of the arts. Indeed, Beirut is truly fortunate to be the beneficiary of his beneficence, sagacity and discriminating taste.
Eddé’s name, the Lebanese collector appears in the book entitled “Remarkable Minerals” by Jean-Claude Boulliard (UPMC collection – La Sorbonne).