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Building Museums to Mark the Places They Left Behind

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in The Wall Street Journal Europe, Jan. 7, 2005. 

Ah, Hamburg. What a nice place to … leave?

Along with a number of cities across Europe, Hamburg wants to attract visitors by showing them why enormous numbers of people over the years have wanted to get away from it.

The city’s Maritime Foundation plans to lay the foundation stone in March for an emigration museum. It would partially reconstruct BallinStadt, an elaborate way station from the turn of the last century for travelers awaiting departure via the Hamburg-American Line, also known as Hapag. It would be a sort of mirror image of New York’s Ellis Island.

The Hamburg museum would commemorate one of the most-used exits Europe ever had, but across the continent there are museums large and small — from the Icelandic Emigration Center in Hofsos to Warsaw’s Padarewski Museum of Poles in Exile — that mark the decision of countless compatriots to stop being compatriots.

The promise of attracting tourist dollars from the descendants of emigrants plays no small role in the decision to highlight a not-altogether-positive aspect of European history: the desire to flee persecution, poverty and famine.

Finland plans an Emigration Museum in Peraseinajoki, which, its Web site promises, will become an “international all-year-round attraction offering something for everyone.” The Peraseinajoki museum even hopes to arrange family meetings between descendants of the 1.3 million Finns who emigrated and the people who were left behind. Most emigration museums tend to offer similar fare: exhibitions of artifacts taken aboard by passengers, letters written between members of divided families, dramatic re-enactments of different stages of migration, and genealogical research centers.

Some, such as the Norwegian Emigrant Museum, reconstruct houses that emigrants built in their new homeland; others, such as the Ulster American Folk Park in Northern Ireland and the Dunbrody in New Ross, Ireland, reconstruct ships used to transport people across the Atlantic.

Donna M. Shine, co-founder of New York’s Buffalo Irish Genealogical Society, came away from her visit to the Dunbrody as much impressed by the “fantastic skills” required to build and operate the ship as by the “horror of how the passengers were canned together in steerage, suffered from diseases, and didn’t see the light of day.”

Simone Eick, research manager for Studio Andreas Heller, an architectural firm building an emigration museum in Bremerhaven, Germany, says, “What one needs to show is that simple people with a great deal of hope went away in order to take control of their lives, something they couldn’t do in Germany or other parts of Europe. That’s a moment worth showing. These were courageous people.”

Every emigration museum in Europe can boast that large numbers of tired and poor were among its nation’s huddled masses. A fifth of Iceland’s population had left for North America by 1914; by 1930, the same percentage of Swedes had left Sweden. According to the Norwegian Emigrant Museum, the number of people of Norwegian descent outside of Norway far surpasses the number of people living in Norway itself.

Hamburg’s BallinStadt Emigration Museum will commemorate one of the largest exoduses in Europe’s history. Its historians estimate that more than five million people set out from the port between 1850 and 1934, and that 20 million Americans are descended from people using Hamburg as their point of departure, including at least half of today’s American Jewish population.

BallinStadt — or Ballin’s City — takes its name from Albert Ballin, the Jewish managing director of Hapag, whose dramatic rise and fall paralleled the fate of Germany and the imperial ambitions of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Ballin mixed business acumen with tribal loyalty, realizing that the pogroms in Eastern Europe were creating a population keenly interested in finding a more-welcoming home. He started direct weekly service from the Baltic to New York, but he also recognized the need to make Hamburg a desirable port to embark from. From 1901 to 1907, Ballin and Hapag spent three million Reichsmark to build accommodations for as many as 5,000 customers waiting for ships to take them across the Atlantic.

Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Hamburg was competing for business with Bremerhaven, and so it seems only fitting that the two ports are each constructing their own emigration museums at about the same time. Bremerhaven’s German Emigration Center — costing €20 million ($26 million) — will be completed this summer, just in time for the city’s maritime festival. The museums say they have done market research indicating that they can expect up to 200,000 visitors a year each. That may be a bit ambitious. The Ulster American Folk Park, which calls itself Europe’s biggest emigration museum, received 130,000 visitors last year. But the Ulster American Folk Park doesn’t offer an Internet database for people looking for their forebears’ port of departure.

At least part of BallinStadt’s genealogical center is already online. The site offers information covering just over two million passengers traveling from 1890 to 1906. If you know the name of your ancestor, you can find out, free of charge, if he or she traveled through Hamburg. For a fee ranging from €40 to €80, you can learn your ancestor’s age at the time of the journey, previous residence, occupation and planned destination. Once the museum is built, Reinhard Wolf, the Maritime Foundation’s chair, says he hopes to offer the information as part of the price of museum entry. The city of Bremen also has a free online database of passenger lists from 1920 to 1939 at

The Danish Emigration Database (, covering the years 1869 to 1908, is one of the few other online resources that lets visitors track down their roots free. Most other institutions require a visit, or charge a fee, or both.

Usually, emigration museums struggle for funding from national governments reluctant to dwell on people who abandoned their homelands. The extravagant subsidy of the Bremerhaven museum is an exception. BallinStadt still has a ways to go before it has enough money to build its doors, let alone open them. Despite contributions from Hapag-Lloyd — descendant of the original Hapag — and other Hamburg companies, the museum is facing a €1 million shortfall in covering the €7.5 million price tag. The Maritime Foundation is trying to locate successful Americans whose ancestors passed through BallinStadt and who might want to contribute to the project; Mr. Wolf says he believes Steven Spielberg’s or Michael Douglas’s ancestors may have been former residents.

Only one of the original BallinStadt buildings remains; two identical buildings will be reconstructed to house exhibitions, a genealogical research center, and, of course, a cafeteria and gift shop. In addition to the historic buildings, the foundation wants to erect a large, spiral, walk-in sculpture designed by Werner Schaarman and Wulf Kirschner, two Hamburg-based artists. Taking a page from the Ellis Island playbook, for €100 the foundation will let people have their ancestors’ names engraved on copper plates to be mounted on the surface of the sculpture. The structure itself bears the title “Wings of Hope”; for Mr. Wolf, its snail-like shape “symbolizes Europe.”

Mr. Kirschner says he hopes the experience of walking in a claustrophobic spiral and exiting as the spiral opens out to the west will capture the “ambivalent situation” of the emigrants — “their hope, but also fear and despair.”

Time has added a layer of irony to BallinStadt: The Veddel district, where the Emigration Museum will be located, is now dominated by immigrants, mostly from Turkey. Sixty% of the population is foreign — four times the level of the rest of Hamburg.

Does the Emigration Museum bear a lesson for Germany’s immigrants today, or for their hosts? The historian for the museum, Ursula Woest, says, “I want to present history, to show how it was, but the conclusion that one draws, each person needs to make that for himself. In any case, I think that the emigration was a loss for Europe.”

But will BallinStadt’s exhibitions mourn emigration the way Ellis Island celebrates immigration? “It’s not so thoroughly worked out,” Ms. Woest says.

Mr. Kirschner is less hesitant. “I think one can pick up such themes,” he says, “I wouldn’t be shy about that. If this is supposed to become a lively place and not just gather dust as a museum, then something contemporary must also happen. One mustn’t shy away from hot topics or worry about causing controversy.”

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