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Best of Airways — Hidden Treasures at Paris-Orly: Musée Air France

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Best of Airways — Hidden Treasures at Paris-Orly: Musée Air France

AIR FRANCE

Best of Airways — Hidden Treasures at Paris-Orly: Musée Air France
July 13
14:07 2017

By Andreas Spaeth • Airways Magazine, June 2014 – The Airchive


The airlines business model is to earn money flying passengers and freight from point A to point B in the safest, most comfortable, punctual and efficient manner. It is not part of their core business to bask in the glorious past of the company’s heritage. Archives only cost money without generating profit, argue the bean counters sitting in the upper echelons of management these days. Big mistake, others contend, because a glorious past can be an integral part of a well-managed and relevant brand. So, telling a brand’s history should be indispensable. Yet, contemporary airlines face intense competitive and cost pressures. Today’s low-cost carriers are not quite ready to contribute to the glorious status European or American legacy airlines enjoy. Most of these
newcomers are rarely looking back on more than 20 years of business anyway.

A photo of an Air France Flight Attendant mounted on card board adorns the entrance to the company’s archivesPHOTO: AUTHOR

A photo of an Air France Flight Attendant mounted on card board adorns the entrance to the company’s archives PHOTO: AUTHOR

However, it is a different story with most legacy carriers. They carry a lot of history with them in their often slow-moving corporate structures. And part of that history includes original artifacts, physical aeronautical pieces, and documents amassed by tradition-rich companies. However, the majority of carriers sadly disposed much of this largesse of over time. Yet a few airlines are affording themselves the luxury of maintaining a company museum open to the public, allowing aficionados to bask in the past and relive often-heroic history. There are a few good examples in Europe – led by the British Airways Speedbird Centre near London’s Heathrow airport, and the SAS Museum near Oslo airport. In the US there is the long-established CR Smith Museum of American Airlines at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport as well as the Delta Flight Museum in Atlanta, re-opening this year after much renovations. In Brazil, the TAM Museum represents the best aeronautical museum in South America. Qantas has its own museum at its birthplace in the Queensland outback in Longreach with a “Qantas Heritage Centre” open to the public in its domestic terminal at Sydney airport. With a few exceptions, the majority of these sites are airline-run company museums.

Europe’s Air France boasts among the most diverse heritages, having been founded in the merging of five smaller predecessor companies on October 7, 1933 at Paris-Le Bourget. Since October 2013, this illustrious member of the airline industry has been celebrating its 80th anniversary with exhibitions, special liveries for two aircraft and today hosts a modest website. Air France has set benchmarks in numerous areas over the decades. These include, for example, its unique aircraft fleet comprised of many French designs which have remained exotic elsewhere, built by manufacturers such as Latécoère, Farman or Bréguet. Further, the airline has been in the forefront of design and elegance, from game-changing uniforms tailored by French couturiers and on-board wall decorations created by renowned artists, to the exquisite layouts of its city ticket offices conceived by world-class architects. Luminaries of literature such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (The Little Prince) played a role in Air France’s history as did aviation pioneers Louis Blériot and Jean Mermoz. Naturally, no other airline engaged as early or with such dedication in the excellence of inflight catering as company predecessor Air Union did in 1927, this was France after all. A liveried flight attendant served from gourmet menus in twelve-seat aircraft between Paris and London: Lobster Parisienne, Bresse chicken, followed by a tutti frutti ice cream that graced many a palate. Accompanied by fine wines, the offering was later expanded to seven-courses. A highlight of the later Air France history of course remains Concorde, operated between 1976 and 2003, which embodied all French virtues of refinement and elegance in their most perfect form.

First Class passengers enjoy a movie on board one of the airline’s Boeing 707. PHOTO: AIR FRANCE

First Class passengers enjoy a movie on board one of the airline’s Boeing 707. PHOTO: AIR FRANCE

In short – a richer history than Air France’s is hard to find at any other airline, making it more than worthy of its own museum. Is there such a museum? This is a difficult question that can’t be clearly answered. Online there is the website airfrancemusee.org, comprising a modest overview of the carrier’s history, allowing specific artifacts such as aircraft models or historic advertising posters to be clicked on and appreciated. And then there is the rather mystifying online announcement: “The Air France Museum has at its disposal several private spaces where are preserved documents and objects gathered for several years (spaces are not opened to the public)”. Clicking on “The Boutique” allows the visitor a thorough examination of the fine print describing that there is a museum store, open daily, in the Terminal des Invalides, a historic building owned by Air France near the Eiffel tower in Paris. However, it proves to be difficult to then actually find the store on the lower level. While there does exist a sign on the wall which declares “Musée Air France”, within there are only a range of things on offer from (mostly French) books to poster reproductions, aircraft models and even ties. There is however nothing much of a museum, besides a few big shutter cabinets. Sitting in the back of the room is Jean Signoret, an Air France veteran and former head of publicity, who also worked many years for the airline in Berlin. More than 70 years old now, Mr. Signoret is the voluntary president of the museum association with in excess of 600 members. “Air France gives us this room, computers and telephones and we have an annual budget of 10,000 Euros for acquisitions to enlarge the collection”, says Signoret. The collection is stored in the cabinets and consists mainly of original posters and reproductions as well as a library. He and his team have been working on a virtual Air France museum online for some time. “A real museum is unthinkable, unfortunately”, regrets Signoret.

A Lockheed Super Constellation promotional poster from Morocco from the 1950s can also be found in the museum.PHOTO: AUTHOR

A Lockheed Super Constellation promotional poster from Morocco from the 1950s can also be found in the museum. PHOTO: AUTHOR

But at another place not so far away, Air France’s history is coming back to life in a very exciting way. South of Paris, in a location even most Air France employees have neither heard of nor actually ever visited, in the catacombs of a nondescript building near Orly Airport – where former domestic carrier Air Inter had its offices – there is a treasure trove of unimaginable scope, established in 2010. “Historical and cultural patrimony of Air France” was the original name of this internal department; today it just goes by “Archive and Patrimony.” This is the kingdom of Simon-Pierre Souillot, heading a team of four staff members, all with a background of art history and museum work. Mr. Souillot is responsible for a treasure that is second to none in the aviation world: “There are about 45,000 historic artefacts stored with us, a further 5,000, mostly works of art, are at headquarters at CDG airport”, explains Souillot. For outsiders it is impossible, even after inquiring, to comprehend which connections there are between the different locations and departments. Apparently the complexity entails estates and spheres of influence that are grimly defended internally. The fact is that Souillot and his team are facing a Herculean task. They work with a small budget of 30,000 Euros annually plus 75,000 Euros for acquisitions and are expected to inventory and store a huge number of diverse objects and documents with museum-like precision. Souillot describes his job in this way: “We have to take every object, clean it carefully, describe it according to predefined categories, photograph, number and mark it and put all that in a database that can be searched by museums, exhibition makers and researchers”. So far, nearly 14,000 objects have been processed in this manner, at least three more years will be needed for the remaining cache. “We often have to secure relevant objects within and from outside of the company for us first”, reports Souillot. “And we try to educate staff to give us important stuff.”

On an exclusive tour for Airways, Simon-Pierre Souillot reveals some of his treasures. The sheer volume of things as well as their quality is overwhelming. First, there are the 1,800 original advertising posters, most of them represented in three copies, created by over 600 of the most well-known artists of the trade between 1930 and 1980, a total of 8,000 pieces. “This is the biggest poster collection of any single company worldwide”, enthuses Souillot. Then there are 2,000 philatelic objects in the collection, for example, the first letter sent by airmail on February 18, 1911, of which there are just 15 originals left worldwide. Equally impressive are the 3,000 uniforms and related pieces of clothing – anything ever worn at Air France, its subsidiaries and predecessors, including shoes – all carefully hung, labelled and packaged. This even includes an original leather pilot jacket of Louis Blériot, the first human to cross the English Channel by aircraft in 1909. There are also original paper notes, pencil-written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, to communicate in the noisy open cockpit of his aircraft.

A stewardess wearing the Tropical Dress designed by La Maison Virginie.       PHOTO: AIR FRANCE

A stewardess wearing the Tropical Dress designed by La Maison Virginie. PHOTO: AIR FRANCE

Further on, original pieces of art await, tapestry once used to adorn the bars of Air France’s Boeing 707s, and paintings which hung on the wardrobe doors in the noses of Boeing 747s. “Some of these are worth over 100,000 Euros per piece today”, reveals Jean Signoret. The Air France archives also hold 4,000 menu cards, 100,000 photos, 2,000 film rolls, 500 games, 300 medals and 1,800 books, topped off by 5,000 cardboard boxes containing documents, stacked several meters high to the roof of the warehouse.

Simon-Pierre Souillot and a staff member inspect some of the content in the large warehouse storing the Air France archive.

Simon-Pierre Souillot and a staff member inspect some of the content in the large warehouse storing the Air France archive. PHOTO: AUTHOR

Also housed here are 60 original aircraft seats dating from 1920 to today. Yet among all these treasures, the highlight is a warehouse area secured by steel doors with walkable high racks inside: The model collection. “We have 350 aircraft models, at least 70 of which are more than one meter in length”, explains Souillot.

Hundreds of aircraft models are stored in large racks, lacking any form of order. This is an early 1960s Caravelle model, built by a company in former West-Berlin, according to its label. PHOTO: AUTHOR

Hundreds of aircraft models are stored in large racks, lacking any form of order. This is an early 1960s Caravelle model, built by a company in former West-Berlin, according to its label. PHOTO: AUTHOR

There is hardly any aircraft type that’s not hidden in some rack, often dismantled due to space restrictions in specially padded boxes, while others stand several meters in length – huge display models from travel agencies. This site is an absolute paradise for any aircraft model fanatic. At some point, all this is poised to see the light of the outside world: “I am dreaming of a proper museum in the Terminal des Invalides, but this is not a definitive project yet”, says the treasure’s master.

Hopefully, someone at Air France can be convinced that this heritage represents a worthy investment in the broader scope of the airlines’ brand.

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About Author

Andreas Spaeth

Andreas Spaeth

Based in Hamburg, Germany, lifelong passenger aviation geek, aviation journalist, book author, TV expert and avid traveler to over 100 countries and counting.

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