Once Upon A Time On The Orient Express in Singapore is a Preservation of Cultural Heritage
As we enjoy and romanticise bygone eras, it’s always important to remember the people who made it possible for their legacies to endure. Since 2015, the Once Upon A Time on the Orient Express exhibition has been bringing together artefacts of this historical train and also showcasing the heritage of this iconic train's history to the world.
"The Orient Express is more than a train, it is an artefact that bridged cultures and people. It allowed English travellers, soldiers, and diplomats to travel to India via Iraq and Iran and the port of Bassora ... this exhibition contributes to continuing this ideal," said Claude Mollard, the curator and general commissioner of the Orient Express, in an email interview with Tatler Singapore.
Like what its name suggests, the Orient Express travels to the Far East as it made its debut outside of Paris for the first time last year. Held at Gardens by the Bay, the exhibition boasts a collection of over 300 artefacts and documents as well as the original locomotive and two 1930s Pullman carriages.
In the golden age of travel by train, the Orient Express was a trailblazer in its own right connecting the West to the East while carrying its passengers in luxury. Known for its lavish decorations, and first-of-its-kind closed compartment sleeping cars, the train with its opulent interiors ferried many historic figures.
"The dream of the creator, Georges Nagelmackers, was to unite Europe and ease the meeting between East and West. People were able to travel through Europe without stopping at any borders," said Mollard.
It was known to have ferried famous names such as Czar Nicholas II of Russia and Joséphine Baker, a famous performer of the Folies Bergères, but was also the choice of travel for spies crossing borders.
Here, Mollard shares more with us his thoughts on the importance of preserving heritage.
What do you think is behind the mysterious allure of the Orient Express?
Claude Mollard (CM) The Orient Express has appealed to many, sparking imagination in the minds of the visitors through the mysterious allure of famous literary works and their characters who have travelled aboard the storied train. Examples include From Russia with Love starring James Bond; and Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. There was politics, arts, and also cultures that have crossed paths [on the train]. Great minds and destinies have left their traces in the train itself. It carries an entire mythology that echoes through imagination.
What is the cultural significance of the Orient Express to Parisians?
CM Since the Orient Express’ maiden voyage from Paris to Constantinople on 5 June 1883, its route connected through distinguished centres of art and music, such as Munich, Vienna and Budapest. [Its presence and operation also coincided] with France’s Années Folles (1920s) era, which was known for the effervescence of the Parisian nightlife, and the revolution in theatre, music and dance. Paris became not only a point of departure to the East, it was the meeting point for artists, writers and singers seeking inspiration and energy.
Is the preservation of heritage necessary for the modern era?
CM Heritage is what defines an identity, what allows one to know where they are from and where they are going. Preservation and the showcase of heritage are paramount to a link to the past, a reminder of how far we have come. It is a source for inspiration, education and creation. Its preservation is a struggle worth fighting for.
What is the biggest challenge in preserving artefacts such as the carriage and antiques?
CM Designing and staging an exhibition like Once Upon A Time On The Orient Express in Singapore meant collecting around 300 precious items and documents. We had to restore many of these artefacts and even renovate furniture to their former glory, despite the initial lockdown [due to Covid-19] in France. The biggest challenge was not only to ship the original locomotive that was built in France more than 150 years ago as well as the 1930s Pullman car—a historic monument—from the international company but these relics required restoration too. Even while displayed, the ideal environment had to be made for the preservation of the artefacts, with a special building built to house the Orient Express to ensure the pieces stay in good condition.
Related: The Important Role Of Private Giving In The Preservation Of Cultural Heritage
Do you feel that Agatha Christie’s work, Murder On The Orient Express, encapsulated the beauty of the times: the train, the travel, and its travellers?
CM The strength of Agatha Christie’s novel has been to enhance the mystery of the train. Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express was less about a realistic description of the times but invents a sleepless story that contributed to the legend. Every movie inspired by her novels has faithfully recreated the scenery of the times, thanks to her descriptions.
What are your thoughts on the romance associated with travelling by rail?
CM Travelling by rail has always been the most interesting way to travel for me. Akin to the stage, the three classical entities come together: time, place, and action. There is a touch of liberty as you get a sense of the countries you cross, something that is difficult even for today’s modes of transport.