By Tina Thorburn
Born on Avenue de Victor Hugo in Paris, French-American Anaïs Lellouche seemed the perfect person to curate the Victor Hugo: Les Misérables – From Page to Stage exhibit in Melbourne’s CBD.
The State Library of Victoria thought so and brought Ms Lellouche on board to help make this ambitious exhibit possible. Ms Lellouche came to Melbourne in 2013 as a resident curator at Gertrude Contemporary, and now calls herself a Melburnian. The opportunities, architecture and friendly people make her feel at home.
“For me, Melbourne is the new New York,” Ms Lellouche said, “In France there is a new myth about Australia as a new place where things are happening on a big scale.” But myth is not what bought one of France’s national treasures, Victor Hugo’s original manuscript of his novel Les Misérables, to Melbourne.
Instead, it was Ms Lellouche’s diplomatic insight and a strong partnership between the Australian and French embassies. The President of the National Library of France was impressed by the State Library’s project, but reluctant to let the manuscript travel half way across the world. Ms Lellouche was integral to making this possible, due to her previous work with the National Library of France and her French heritage.
To convince the National Library of France to let the manuscript leave Europe of the first time ever, Ms Lellouche says she had “to think creatively and outside the box”. She saw the potential for a win-win scenario. “They wanted a diplomatic partnership, and we wanted the national treasure,” Ms Lellouche said.
“Australia, and Melbourne, is going to have a big international focus with the G20 summit later this year and the French President is coming to Australia for the first time.”
“This exhibition, of the manuscript and all the other treasures, represents a strong bond between our two nations.”
Ms Lellouche recalls that getting the approval to have the manuscript as part of the exhibit was like “a dream come true”. “We had put so much effort into getting all these amazing things from performing arts collections, and photographs, and we really needed the source,” Ms Lellouche said.
According to Ms Lellouche, the exhibit is both scholarly and fun, taking visitors from the turbulent life of Victor Hugo to the rise of one of the most widely known musicals, Les Misérables.
To balance this historical exhibit, Ms Lellouche also curated a show for Melbourne’s White Night 2014 to continue to develop her contemporary expertise.
This balance is evident in the exhibit, featuring relics of the past, like the manuscript, to modern artifacts, like costumes used in 2012 Les Misérables film. The exhibit welcomes visitors to get into costume and act out scenes on stage, but also offers a quiet place to reflect on the original drawing of Cosette, an image that is now engrained in global popular culture.
Ms Lellouche encourages visitors of all ages to come and enjoy the exhibit and Victor Hugo’s story of Les Misérables. “Les Misérables is an extraordinarily multilayered story, of love and victory and resolution, it is just really inspiring. And this has been really inspiring for me, and a great chance to be here and establish myself in Australia,” Ms Lellouche said.