Walk through historic carriages of the Orient Express and discover its legacy in Once Upon a Time on the Orient Express, a pop-up exhibition at Gardens by the Bay.
Once Upon a Time on the Orient Express was first held in Paris back in 2014, and the pop-up in Singapore marks the first time the exhibition is staged overseas.
Perhaps an exhibition about travel – from a distant land and time – would be much appreciated by travel-starved locals in this climate.
Taking place under a tent designed to imitate the Gare du Nord station in Paris, the exhibition features a few segments of actual the Orient Express train. The engine is proudly presented outside the ‘station’ for anyone walking by to admire.
Step inside and you’ll find yourself at a ticketing platform which serves as a waiting area to board the train.
The exhibition opens with the boarding of a few restored carriages from the famed train. These carriages are also not accessible by wheelchair, though the rest of the galleries are designed to be accessible.
These are the lounge cars, flush with exquisite details of luxury travel from the Orient Express’ bygone era.
The restored interiors, props and items are all staged in these carriages, alluding to the high life on board.
“Moving” newspapers were also attempted.
Tags can be found on various items, describing characters or real people with a connection to the Orient Express.
The experience of walking around the cabin without glass panels in front of displays is very enjoyable – but no sitting or touching is allowed.
The walkthrough continues into the fourgon car, otherwise known as the baggage van or ‘cargo area’.
Lots more bric-a-brac here, including items connected to well-known fictitious characters.
You’ll have to walk past the covered body of Cassetti from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.
And then you’re off the train – and into the more conventional museum segment of the experience.
Here you will learn about Georges Nagelmackers, who founded the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL) back in 1876. His company brought the experience of train travel on board Pullman carriages from America to European railways.
The next gallery features artifacts from the Orient Express and other items related to the train, including fittings, tableware and uniforms.
This is how High Life, the train’s magazine, looked like (which looks more like an encyclopedia).
Apparently the idea of a ‘press trip’ – a publicity method where the media is invited to an experience as a guest (usually expenses paid for) – was invented by Georges Nagelmackers.
In the middle of this gallery is also a dining car setting, along with a few vintage Louis Vuitton luggage, including the iconic steamer trunk which you can still buy today (though I think most owners use them to decorate their home).
The back part of this room focuses on the technical aspects of the train, and features several scale models.
In the final area of the exhibition, you’ll get to see the train carriages again from the ground, which look massive from this perspective. This is where most people took their group photos as the cabin interior is too crammed for it.
The last section focuses the development of tourism by rail – with many printed articles: brochures, postcards, guidebooks. These things that have, in the past decade, mostly shifted to digital form, and often ephemeral.
Just ‘gram it and go.
The Orient Express adventure concludes in the gift shop, where you can pick up some souvenirs. Recently, the face mask based on the exhibition’s poster artwork was made available for sale.
Apart from the exhibition, this pop-up also includes two dining experiences: One set in a restaurant built to resemble the luxury dining cars (but still not the real one), with prices to match. The other is the Orient Express Cafe by Yannick Alleno.
Despite the markup, I’m sure some would be tempted to just grab a table and relax here – since the pop-up is some distance away from the Gardens by the Bay’s attractions and the nearest cafe. The sandwiches do look delicious!
Other activities available at the pop-up include luxury dining experiences in the replica dining car, and some ‘escape room’ game that somehow nobody seems to have a clue about it other than it’s “coming soon”. We’ll see.
A short review on the Orient Express exhibition in Singapore
I thought that the experience peaked very early with the walkthrough of train carriages. Once this highly immersive part is over, it’s hard for the rest of the exhibition to keep up with the same wow factor – the artifacts are very cleanly (and consistently) presented in the ‘trunks’. It’s like the train whisked us into a museum. This might have been part of the design to avoid another bottleneck within the exhibition, if the train was in the middle or at the end, especially with all the safe management measures.
The train walkthrough is also very compact and with a line of people waiting to get in, you can’t dawdle. Find the tag, read and go. Muse yourself with the table settings and try to recall scenes from the Orient Express films – whichever that you had watched. Walk too fast and you’ll quickly find yourself in the cargo area – the space where many would breeze through quickly since it looked like a haunted house attraction, along with that covered ‘corpse’ of Cassetti.
It would have been nice to have reproductions of the sleeper trains or other train-related settings to explore, but I presume the exhibition is designed to be as authentic as possible with actual artifacts – after all they’ve already built the replica dining car outside for the restaurant, and bringing in more film artifacts would dilute the focus. Also, this exhibition should take about 45-60 minutes to complete if one were to read and see everything, including some inevitable waiting time in line at the start.
For the casual museum go-er, it could be a big ask to make a special journey to the gardens for the Orient Express. But I thought it would be a nice stop to complete a visit to the Flower Dome and other attractions nearby.
Once Upon a Time on the Orient Express
Gardens by the Bay West Lawn (next to Bayfront Plaza)
Now till 13 June 2021.
Tickets from $25 per person. A family bundle (2 Adults and 2 Children under age of 13) is available for $88.
A Fast Track/ VIP ticket is available at $80 per person, this allows the ticket holder to skip queues and go directly into the train carriages.