BallinStadt emigration museum

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BallinStadt HamburgA museum chronicling the waves of emigration from Europe to the New World, mostly the USAHamburg was one of Germany's transit centres for emigrants waiting to embark on the transatlantic journey. The museum is housed in reconstructed red-brick buildings just like those that were actually part of the original emigrants' accommodation centre.
It is a dark site in as much as the reasons for emigrating are covered, mostly religious persecution and economic hardship, as are maritime accidents that happened, treatment upon arrival in the New World, new hardships faced in their new lives and also a few addenda relating to modern-day refugees worldwide.
It is Hamburg's newer equivalent of the slightly more established German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven.    

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations  

More background info: The name of the museum is based on the epithet given to the emigration centre in its heyday, and derives from the name Albert Ballin, general director of one of Hamburg's major shipping companies, the HAPAG, who played the biggest part in the development of the emigration centre.
From 1850 to 1934 (when the Nazis took over and closed the centre) some 5 million emigrants in total, about 10% of all European emigrants, passed through the BallinStadt centre on their way to seeking new fortunes overseas. Not surprisingly, a large proportion of these people were actually Germans, but there were also huge numbers of Eastern Europeans (esp. Jews) who used this emigration centre as the departure point for their transatlantic journey to the Americas. In the second half of the 19th century anti-Jewish sentiments, discrimination and pogroms were already increasing – a prelude, as it were, to what would later turn into the Nazis' Holocaust against the European Jewry. For other groups of emigrants it was economic hardship, hunger even, that was the main driving force behind their seeking a new life in America.
Getting there wasn't so easy, though. And the museum provides a good impression of what it must have been like passing through the cramped conditions of the emigration centre (though in many cases these conditions were already better than what the people had left behind), crossing the Atlantic for weeks onboard crowded steamers, and arriving, in particular, at the Ellis Island immigration centre in New York. There, a tough immigration procedure commenced for most new arrivals, meaning further detention, medical examinations and interrogation, before actually reaching the new freedom they so longed for. Not everybody made it. People were turned away for various reasons. Millions were eventually welcomed, however, but the new life wasn't always easy either. One part of the museum covers the German communities that formed in the USA and elsewhere which struggled extra-hard to keep some of their old traditional Germanness alive. The latter is something still to be found in the Americas – pockets of Germanness more extremely cliched than to be found in contemporary Germany itself.
The main focus of the museum, obviously, is on the emigration centre itself, what the living conditions were like, what kinds of people stayed here, etc., etc. – and there's a separate section for genealogy. The museum also holds a large collection of original passenger lists, which can be perused. Some interesting names can be tracked down there – e.g. the ancestors of Woody Allen or Steven Spielberg!
What there is to see: The entrance to the museum is in the building at the far end of the complex, i.e. in building "No. 3" (a bit confusingly). Apart from the ticket counter (remember to keep hold of your ticket in order to gain access to the other buildings!), space for temporary exhibitions and a few "taster" exhibits", it mainly houses the museum's genealogy centre.
Those interested in tracing their ancestors (or anybody else's) can do so at one of a series of computer terminals. The original passenger lists of the ships that took some 5 million emigrants from Hamburg to America, as well as other databanks provide one of the best such research sources worldwide. Genealogy experts are at hand to help.
Visitors who only come to see the exhibitions of the museum will instead quickly proceed to building No. 2, which houses a general exhibition on emigration. You have to follow a pre-set thematically structured circuit, which first takes you to the very beginning of it all: why do people emigrate? Answers to this are provided, for instance, at several audio stations, next to display dummies in period costumes from various points in time between the mid-1800s up to the 1930s. Here you can listen to personal stories of individual emigrants to learn about their respective motivations, hardships and hopes. This places the history of emigration into the various historical contexts and provides a more individualized approach to these in a way that mere figures and statistics can't. However, it can get a bit tedious listening to the often somewhat overacted reading style adopted by some of the (presumably) actors who were used in recording these audio tracks. But you can be selective, of course. Otherwise, there's the widest range of modern display technology, often interactive, and very audio-visual in general.
Kids get their own interactive stations; and adults are barred from them! This must be a particular incentive for the kids to actually use these stations … which in turn means the adults get more peace and quiet to peruse the general exhibits. Clever concept!
Display texts and audio material are almost always available bilingually, in German and English – and the quality of the translations is commendable. There are also many original artefacts on display, plus heaps of suitcases (who would have guessed) and other travel-related paraphernalia.
Topically, the exhibition moves from motivations for emigration to the bureaucracy involved, Hamburg as an emigration centre, correspondence, etc., and also the successive ships of ever greater size that were in service to transport emigrants across the Atlantic. There's also a large mock ship's "bow", set in shallow water! This theme includes the story of the "Cimbria", a steamer that sank in 1883 with over 400 emigrants on board. A fragment of the ship salvaged from the seabed in 1974 is on display, amongst more nautical-themed exhibits.
Next, the exhibition moves on to the topic of arrival in the New World, in particular the registration, interrogation, and detention (and sometimes rejection) system that was in place at Ellis Island immigration centre in New York. Finally, the new lives emigrants found in their various new homes are illustrated, esp. from a German perspective, naturally. At the end of this section is a small extra part that relates to contemporary emigration and refugee problems, including modern-day Hamburg – the area that the museum is located in is in fact one of Hamburg's immigrant districts.
The third and last section, in building No. 1, which incorporates some of the only remaining original structures of the old BallinStadt buildings, is dedicated to the emigration centre itself, how it evolved, how emigrants were treated, what problems were encountered, what the structure of the centre was, etc.. There are even mock sleeping quarters, reconstructed (apparently) to their original look. This section also includes the personal history of the centre's eponymous Albert Ballin. He was of Jewish origin, and although he worked his way up into the highest echelons of the maritime business, he wasn't widely accepted. His life ended tragically: at the end of World War One, which had destroyed his life's work, he committed suicide.
At the end of the exhibition proper you get to a cafeteria and a fairly large shop selling all kinds of emigration-related souvenirs, books, postcards, as well as some maritime knick-knacks and generally Hamburg-related touristy stuff.  
Location: In the south of Hamburg, on the "other" side of the river Elbe, i.e. not where most of the city and its sights are – more precisely, on the "island" of Veddel. (You wouldn't know that technically speaking it's a river island – it's all built up and blends into the harbour area.) But it's easy to reach from the city centre.
Google maps locator: [53.5203,10.0176]
Access and costs: Easy enough to get to, but comparatively expensive.
Details: The easiest way to get to the BallinStadt is to take the regional metro train (S-Bahn) S3 or S31, which frequently depart from the Central Station (Hauptbahnhof). It's just two stops to the S-Bahn stop Veddel and from there a short signposted walk. There's also plenty of free parking spaces, for those who prefer to come by car. To get there take the first exit off the A252 motorway, which branches off the A255 at Veddel going west (while the A255 is the main motorway access to the south), and then get off straight away at the first exit, marked "Georgswerder". For a scenic alternative you could also take a boat: BallinStadt is the first stop on the "Circle Line" departing from Landungsbrücken that connects Hamburg's main tourist sights that are on or by the river.
Admission: BallinStadt is a "public-private partnership" operation, so not surprisingly admission isn't cheap: 12 EUR (as of late 2009) per head, standard adult rate. Some concessions apply (e.g. children up to 12 years old: 7 EUR), but it's still above average cost-wise …. but well, you get quite a bit for your money, I suppose.
Opening times: daily from 10 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. (only to 4.30 p.m. in winter, October to April). Last admission one hour before closing time.
Time required: If you want to listen to every single recording at all the audio stations, watch all the video material, and read every text provided, you can spend a whole day here. Being selective you'd still need to allow some two to three hours. Even hurrying through the exhibition takes at least an hour. (Last admission one hour before closing time.)
Combinations with other dark destinations: generally see Hamburg – the immediate vicinity of BallinStadt offers little for the dark tourist, though there's one site just about in walking distance that may be of interest: Lagerhaus/Speicher G (warehouse G), on Dessauer Ufer, which served as a 'KZ-Außenlager' (satellite camp) for Hamburg's main concentration camp of Neuengamme – about 1500 mostly Jewish female prisoners were subjected to forced labour and inhumane living conditions here. Today the building shows nothing more than a commemorative plaque as a reminder of its dark history. It's about a ten minute walk from BallinStadt.
Easy access from BallinStadt is provided by boat to the tourist hub of Landungsbrücken, where the U-434 submarine has found its new moorings, also near there is the old Bismarck monument.
And of course the regional metro trains (S-Bahn) provide even easier access to the city centre.  
Those interested in the topic should note that there is a similar emigration museum in Germany's second port city of Bremerhaven, from where even greater numbers of people left Europe (see below for a comparison). And on the other side of the Atlantic, the excellent immigration museum on Ellis Island in New York perfectly complements the topic.
BallinStadt vs. German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven:
Both places more or less cover the same story, so how does Hamburg's BallinStadt compare to the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven?
At neither place will you find a mention of the other – they are clearly competitors. So it's only fair to put them head to head here:
As far as the race against time goes, Bremerhaven was the winner, as its Emigration Centre opened in 2005, nearly two years before the BallinStadt. But for today's visitor that's probably of only marginal interest.
The most immediately visible difference between the two is that the museum in Bremerhaven is housed in a purpose-built modern edifice – constructed, however, at an authentic spot where the real emigration embarkation point would have been. The BallinStadt exhibitions, on the other hand, are housed in reconstructed red-brick buildings that look like those that were part of the authentic complex of Hamburg's former emigration centre. In other words, Hamburg wins out, if only just, on authenticity of location.
Bremerhaven, however, successfully exploits the fact that their building is a modern one, esp. in that it is much higher – its enormous, at least two-storey-high display of a mock-up ship front with people (dummies) and goods on the quayside is dramatically bigger and thus creates a far better illusion than the much smaller, similar approach at BallinStadt.
Bremerhaven emphasizes the theme of the ship passage as such a lot more too –including illuminating comparisons of first vs. second vs. third class. Again, this is particularly true of the exhibits/displays: its extensive mock ship interiors easily beat (hands down) what BallinStadt has to offer on this front (not very much at all).
BallinStadt, however, has more exhibits on the before and after, as it were, esp. the emigration centre dormitory is something that sets it apart vis-à-vis Bremerhaven's museum.
Similarly, the whole emphasis of the thematic content is somewhat broader at BallinStadt: the reasons for emigration are explored in slightly more depth, and what became of emigrants in their new homes is also given more space in the actual exhibition. Although Bremerhaven does cover these aspects too – and scores extra points on the life-after-emigration front by means of its cinema, where particular individual cases are showcased; this makes it more palpable than Hamburg's less personalized (though wider-ranging) post-emigration exhibition.
It should perhaps also be mentioned that Bremerhaven's Emigration Center tries to personalize things for a visitor by handing out an "identity" of an individual emigrant, whose background biography you can then follow with regard to different points of the whole emigration story at various audio points. BallinStadt lets you pick and choose whose story you want to listen to. In both cases, however, nothing forces you to follow all the personal stories through to the full, and at both it could easily become a bit tedious trying to do so. So it's not such an important aspect after all, esp. if you choose to be a little more selective.
Particularly interesting, however, is the difference with regard to coverage of the Ellis Island Immigration Center in New York. At Bremerhaven's Emigration Center it is again the large-scale mock-up installations that impress. You get a good feel for the somewhat intimidating corridors and cage-like interiors of waiting rooms etc. – and what's also a cool interactive idea is that you can test yourself at a touch-screen terminal where you can try and answer the immigration inspector's questions and see whether you would have been allowed into the USA. This may be more fun, but what's better at BallinStadt's less interactive displays on the same topic is that they reveal the trick question nature of some of the inspectors' questions and the reasoning behind them – that is, beyond the obvious: "are you an anarchist?" is see-though enough, and only an idiot would seriously have answered that positively (whether correctly or not). But, for instance, it's revealing to learn that saying that you already had a job offer in the US could have resulted in you being sent back, or that if you said you already had relatives in the US you'd be detained until one of them came to collect you. Such aspects come out much more at BallinStadt.
On the genealogy front, both places are pretty much on a par, both offer computer terminals for on-site database access and both offer additional support services for further research.
As regards modern-day issues of migration, Bremerhaven is, again, ahead with its much more elaborate and highly entertaining interactive section, whereas at BallinStadt it feels a bit like a half-hearted obligatory ("PC") add-on.
All in all then, Bremerhaven's Emigration Center clearly has the greater "wow! factor" all round, while BallinStadt scores better on authenticity of location/building and thematic breadth of its exhibition.  
From a specifically dark perspective it is BallinStadt that is ahead: it covers more of the darker background reasons for emigration in the first place (persecution, hunger, anti-Semitism). Unlike Bremerhaven, it also captures the darker side of the risks of the ship passage itself (with its "Cimbria" disaster exhibits). And the darker aspects of the Ellis Island immigration centre are explored in more depth at BallinStadt too.
So the dark tourist may prefer BallinStadt, while the general tourist may enjoy the greater size and dramatic commodification at Bremerhaven's Emigration Center more. On balance, it's a tough call, then. So why not do both? Despite some natural overlap, the two museums actually complement each other rather well!
Combinations with non-dark destinations: generally see Hamburg – there's nothing in the immediate vicinity of BallinStadt that's of general tourist interest; however, the "Circle Line" boats connect to the Hafenmuseum Hamburg (Harbour Museum) – it's the next stop (departures every two hours). Or you can walk it – about 15 mins., not very scenic, though. For those like me with a liking for all things harbour-y, the place is a true gem (much better than the stuffy 'Maritime Museum' in the Speicherstadt). It's about the only trace that remains of what the harbour was like before containerization changed, levelled and standardized the face of harbours the world over forever. Here some of the cranes that once dominated the harbour's skyline have been preserved. In one of the old warehouses (No. 50a) a harbour-themed museum is being developed – it's a work in progress, but already accessible. Additionally, there are floating exhibits too, veteran vessels, that is, plus some on rails. Certainly a museum development in Hamburg that is to be monitored!

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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