PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy inaugurated a World War One museum on Friday, Armistice Day, bringing to light artifacts hidden away in the home of a private collector for decades.
The museum in Meaux, 40km (25 miles) northeast of Paris, features tens of thousands of objects produced during the war, from rifles to crisply ironed uniforms, from photographs to toothbrushes.
The collection, among Europe’s most extensive, was put together by Jean-Pierre Verney, 65, an amateur archeologist who worked for years as a photographer before becoming an archivist at France’s Ministry for Veterans.
Verney, who describes himself as a child of World War Two, said he developed a fascination for the war of the trenches as a child when his parents took him on holiday near a battle site in France’s Aisne region.
At the age of 15 he hitchhiked to Verdun — synonymous in French minds with the slaughter that characterized much of the fighting in World War One — to scour for memorabilia. The collection he built up over years was stored in his home.
While curators from Berlin to Boston had their eyes on the collection, it was the mayor of Meaux, who is also leader of Sarkozy’s UMP party, who won the right to make an offer, buying it for 600,000 euros ($815,000).
“I’m coming out of the trenches,” said Verney, smiling. He added that he was relieved to turn over maintenance of his collection to professional curators.
The museum, which cost just under 30 million euros to build, adds another attraction for tourists who visit France for its wealth of battlefields and war history — an estimated 20 million people per year.
“This is a tourism of memories, of pilgrimages, of remembrance, of commemorations,” said Serge Barcellini, archive director at France’s Defense Ministry.
The museum in Meaux will sit alongside the Verdun Memorial, the Napoleon-era “Invalides” imperial hospital in Paris and the Douaumont Ossuary near Verdun, where the bones of thousands of artillery victims are stored.
Built in five years, the “Musee de la Grande Guerre du Pays de Meaux” is a rectangular building designed by Christophe Lab not far from the “American Monument” — an enormous white statue given to France by the United States in 1932.
Exhibits at the museum, open to the public from Friday, take visitors on a journey through French history, starting with the 1871 war against Prussia, seen as planting the seed for the 1914-1918 conflict.
It includes sections on women and colonial fighters, as well as Americans’ role in the war and their influence on French life, including chewing gum — a novelty for France in 1917.
An early tank stands guard in the main hall, while two planes hang overhead.
Located 15 minutes away from the popular Disneyland Paris amusement park, the museum hopes to draw between 80,000 and 100,000 visitors per year — a modest objective compared with the former’s annual pull of 15 million per year.
Writing By Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Janet Lawrence