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Exhibition at Arab World Institute in Paris recreates the legendary Orient-Express
Arabic World Institute (IMA) president Jack Lang poses on March 28, 2014 in Paris in front of the locomotive of the legendary train the Orient Express, which is displayed in front of the Arabic World Institute for the exhibition "Once upon in time the Orient Express". AFP PHOTO / PATRICK KOVARIK.

PARIS.- The Orient-Express Exhibition has been launched by Jack Lang, former Minister of Culture and President of the Arab World Institute, and Guillaume Pepy, President of the SNCF (French railway network), to mark the legendary line’s 130th anniversary.

The Orient-Express was developed by Georges Nagelmackers, a daring visionary who wanted to create a luxury train that could span Europe, from Paris to Istanbul, at a time when border crossings were difficult and train journeys were particularly uncomfortable. After its launch in 1883, the Orient-Express became a legendary line and came to represent the quintessential art of travel—which is now a thing of the past—until just after World War II. The train took passengers on journeys that combined the thrill of adventure with great luxury and refinement.

A two-part exhibition
The exhibition curator is Claude Mollard. The president of the exhibition’s scientific committee is Gilles Gauthier, a former ambassador. It is a two-part exhibition:

First part
A locomotive and three original Orient-Express carriages have been placed on display outside the Institute’s forecourt. The carriages are 23.34 m long and 2.85 m wide; they have been reduced in weight. The locomotive is 11.45 m long and 3.11 m wide.

The carriages that have been chosen for display on the Institute’s forecourt are three legendary carriages that are classified as historical monuments:

• The Train Bleu (Blue Train) carriage, a bar-restaurant car (used in the film Murder on the Orient-Express).

• The Flèche d’or (Golden Arrow) carriage, a salon car in the ‘Lalique’ style.

• The Orient-Express carriage, a newly restored sleeping car.

The operation of the locomotive is an integral part of the exhibition: it has brought to life like a ‘human beast’, with its smoke and shrill whistles, its mechanic, and driver.

Second part
The second part of the exhibition is being held in an interior space (around 800 m2) that ontains most of the works. The exhibition focuses on two themes: the history of the train and that of its ‘links’ with the Arab world.

It is more than just an exhibition—it is a major event: the Orient-Express, in all its former splendour, is at the forecourt of the Arab World Institute as part of a major exhibition devoted to this legendary train and Art Deco icon, which delighted generations of travellers and enabled them to discover the Orient.

Made possible by the collaboration of the SNCF, this major exhibition comprises two parts:

The first part consists of a train: a locomotive followed by three exceptional carriages that are being displayed on the Institute’s forecourt. Visitors begin their tour of the train on a platform that has been reconstituted next to the train; they then are able to enter the train and visit the various carriages, where they discover the great luxury in which the travellers lived during their journeys, which culminated in the discovery of the Orient.

The exhibition continues in the Arab World Institute, where—in an area of eight hundred square metres on two floors—visitors can view various objects and archive documents, posters, films and photographs, some of which are being displayed in immense presentation ‘trunks’ that are metaphors for travel and focus on certain specific themes. This extensive exhibition enables visitors to understand the origins of the Orient-Express, through the personality of its ‘inventor’, Georges Nagelmackers, and the train’s various technical, social, and cultural aspects. Questions relating to the geopolitical dimension of the Orient-Express also are addressed, through the train’s various routes and rail links that enabled the passengers to travel from Istanbul to Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, and so on.

1 – A train on the Institute’s forecourt
The Orient-Express locomotive is the first sight that greets visitors on the forecourt of the Arab World Institute. Then, like the travellers of that bygone era, they walk along a platform flanked by a small-scale station and board a real train, comprised of three particularly prestigious carriages: the bar-restaurant car called the Train Bleu, immortalized in the film Murder on the Orient-Express, based on the novel of the same name written by Agatha Christie in 1934, the Flèche d’Or (Golden Arrow) salon car in the ‘Lalique’ style, and the Orient Express sleeping car.

Various novels and films helped to make the Orient-Express world-famous. The cinematographic dimension features extensively throughout the itinerary: as they walk through the carriages, the ‘travelling’ visitors see the silhouettes of Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Lauren Bacall, and Sean Connery, as though they have just left their compartment or stepped off the train. Visitors are able to see what it was like to live and travel on the train: the prestigious travellers’ everyday objects are presented in the surprisingly plush and unfamiliar comfort of the compartments, which are decorated with fine marquetry and polished brass.

Dressed in the uniforms worn by the staff of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, drivers and ticket inspectors are present on the train, ready to answer the visitor’s every question….

2 – A veritable ‘museum’ of the Orient-Express
After their tour of the train, visitors are able to enjoy a wonderful exhibition in the Institute. The exhibition is being held on two floors of the Arab World Institute and will focus on the origins and history of the Orient-Express.

The second part of the exhibition extends the cinematographic theme in its presentation of the objects and the various types of document. Physically present on the forecourt and esplanade, the train has been symbolized in this itinerary by a series of model trains, which no doubt are of interest to the younger visitors.

A mechanical and fantastical link between the West and the Orient, this train, which represents a highly sophisticated art of travel in a golden age, also symbolizes the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. The inventor of the Orient-Express, the famous but ‘obscure’ Georges Nagelmackers, was very much a man of his time and passionate about modernity. This pioneering businessman is the key to the exhibition. The founder of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits and developer of the Orient-Express, which he launched in 1883, Nagelmackers was also a visionary, who attempted in his work to find a balance between his taste for orientalism and his dream of a unified Europe; he ended his days as a bankrupt victim of capitalism.

Although the legendary train’s routes did of course take it to the Orient, it did have to cross the whole of Europe to arrive at its final destination. Visitors therefore are able to visit a ‘museum’ of the train, which focuses on all the elements, objects, and documents which helped forge the legend of the Orient-Express.

Three enormous ‘trunks’—measuring around 5 by 2.5 m—contain the various elements, which have been grouped in themes designed to satisfy the visitor’s curiosity. L’art de vivre is the first of these themes, which comprises the décor and objects that have made the train so famous: the bathroom with stained-glass windows, the washbasins, dishes and silverware, restaurant menus, and the travel bags and suitcases, attest to the refinement and luxury at the time. The second presentation ‘trunk’ focuses on the extraordinary global communication network established by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits and the Orient-Express: this includes tourist trips to far-flung lands, exotic and mysterious destinations, posters, travel documents, advertisements, timetables, and itineraries. And the last and third ‘trunk’ presents some of the many—very many—anecdotes and adventures relating to the history (and even world history) of a train that transported many important and famous passengers in the golden age of travel.

A slide show consisting of documentary images, news reels, and images from the Orient-Express’s extensive filmography, presents all the cities on the train’s journey—London, Paris, Vienna, Venice, and, finally, Istanbul—and even those that could be reached via rail links, such as Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan. The exhibition’s visitors are able to discover the famous hotels in major cities of the Orient— Istanbul’s Pera Palace, the Old Cataract in Aswan, the Baron in Aleppo, and Luxor’s Winter Palace—and the first excavation sites as they appeared to the travellers well over a century ago. The slide show is being projected onto screens that resemble the curtains the passengers drew at night, but in the exhibition they have been transformed into windows onto the world that project fabulous dreams; the visitors can experience the train’s interior and get an impression of the vast scale of the territories the Orient-Express crossed, from London to Baghdad, and Aswan.

A major part of the exhibition focuses on le désir d’Orient (the attractions of the Orient), symbolized by the Orient-Express for almost a century. While the Orient greatly inspired western culture, the Orient-Express was definitely one of the most effective vectors for these aspirations and dreams.

Indeed, the Orient-Express made the Orient an accessible travel destination—until then the region had been the exclusive domain of artists and adventurers. The rail network was expanded—often by a forward-looking Ottoman Empire—, which enabled western travellers to penetrate and discover regions undergoing upheaval and which, in reality, were often markedly different to the fantasies cultivated in Europe. The shock of these cultural realities was also part and parcel of the traveller’s experience. Contrastingly, important figures from the Orient also travelled—sometimes quite frequently—on the Orient-Express to discover Europe. The close confines of the Orient-Express also facilitated encounters and contact between these eastern and western men and women. Hence, borders disappeared—during a pre-war period, or between the two wars—for a while, before reappearing after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the development of Arab nationalism, of which Lawrence of Arabia was one of the most famous protagonists. Visitors can reflect on what how these borders have evolved, in the light of Nagelmackers’ pioneering vision.

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