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Treasures from the Al-Thani Collection: The Inaugural Exhibition of the Hotel de la Marine in Paris

During the winter break, I wished to visit the Hotel de la Marine in Paris and its Inauguration exhibition. In 2015, the Ministry of the Navy left the Hotel de la Marine in Paris to move to a new site in the south of Paris. The monument was then entrusted to the Centre of the National Monuments. The aim was to restore the building and take visitors back to the time of the Garde-Meuble de la Couronne when it was built in the 18th century. Since the beginning of the restoration by the Centre for National Monuments, I had been looking forward to seeing this emblematic monument of French national history.

For my first tour, I experienced an immersive visit thanks to audio earphones given by the museum team, to walk through the Salon and Loggia. The most wonderful step was the view of the Place of la Concorde from the large balcony.

Picture credit: Marie-Sylvette Boré
Picture credit: Marie-Sylvette Boré

The operation of the heritage site is shared between the CMN( National Monuments Centre) and a team of curators. They decided that it was an opportunity for visitors to immerse themselves in the unique and exceptional atmosphere from the Age of Enlightenment. The ceremonial rooms bordering the loggia have been maintained in the decor intended by the Ministry of the Navy in the mid-nineteenth century.

But let’s get back to the Al-Thani Collection. The Collection’s exhibition galleries at the Hotel de la Marine are the result of an agreement between the CMN and the Al Thani Collection Foundation. The Hotel de la Marine is going to host works from the collection for the next 20 years, alongside a programme of temporary thematic exhibitions. Works from the Al Thani Collection have previously been shown on temporary exhibitions at major international institutions. Among them is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

In a mesmerising scenography, signed by the Paris-based Japanese architect Tsuyoshi Tane, the visitor explores a rich collection of various objects from all around the world and from various civilizations. In four different rooms, diverse objects were displayed from the Sumerian era to the eighteenth century. Together, these works of art distinguished by their origins and forms, open a window to the values and beliefs of great civilizations. 

At the opening of the exhibition, Amin Jaffer, Chief Curator of the Al-Thani collection said: 

The opening of the galleries of the Hotel de la Marine marks an important milestone in the history of the Al Thani Collection. After several years of temporary exhibitions in major institutions around the world, the Collection is now housed on a more permanent basis in a historic building in the heart of Paris. This extraordinary venue will also allow for biennial exhibitions, organised in partnership with institutions around the world, as well as educational events, including conferences and symposia. These rooms will hopefully be a destination that will attract, fascinate and educate visitors while serving to encourage cultural exchange and celebrate the unifying power of art.

Unfortunately, I was clueless because of the missing contextualisation of the collection’s history and how it was constituted. As a visitor, I asked myself if the museum would present the genesis of the selection of works. Who collected these items and where were they from?

The website of the collection explains: 

The Al Thani Collection contains an exceptional array of artworks spanning the ancient world to the present day. Encyclopaedic in its approach, and representing a diverse range of cultures and civilisations, this extraordinary collection celebrates creativity and the universal power of art through the ages.’ 

Regarding the objects, I loved how they were displayed and the complementary information was given by the guided earphones. Still, in an immersive experience, the voice orientated the visitors in the different rooms and explained the context of the objects. I particularly admired the room with items related to Islam and how different civilizations explored the same religious pathway with different artefacts and crafts.

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Picture credit: The artnewspaper ©The Al Thani Collection 2021. Photo: Marc Domage

One of my favourite objects was a Fang reliquary head from Gabon, ca. 1700-1850 made from iron and wood. The head was considered the noblest part of the body in Fang’s spirituality. Here the reliquary is a part of the Byeri cult. The skulls of the ancestors of the clan were preserved in a reliquary above them where these wooden statuettes were placed. We can see on the reliquary head the traces of several oil lines. Originally these objects were covered with different oils in a devotional myth to the ancestors. 

Picture credit: ©Luana De Micco for The artnewspaper

To conclude, the Treasures of the Al-Thani Collection was the occasion to explore extra-Western objects and pay attention to the talent of the craftsmen who worked on these pieces. In an interesting immersive experience, I appreciated the valorisation of these substances and the narrative given to the visitors. Islamic art is not always presented with a complete narrative, maybe for ease of understanding. I sincerely believe that curators have a duty to provide all the information necessary to understand the context of the object they are exhibiting. This also allows them to feed the curiosity of the visitor, and who knows; trigger a new passion in them.

18th November 2021

Written by Marie-Sylvette Boré