BallinStadt emigration museum Hamburg
A museum chronicling the waves of emigration from Europe to the New World, mostly the USA
, as well as migration in general. Hamburg
was one of Germany
's transit centres for emigrants waiting to embark on their 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 inasmuch 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.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>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 the late 19th century. Ballin 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.
From 1850 to 1934 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 (especially 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.
Initially, emigrants were housed in simple barracks at a harbour quay, but in 1901 new dedicated emigration halls at the present location in Veddel were opened, providing comparatively comfortable accommodation
for about 1200 people at any one time, spread over 15 buildings. In addition to the dormitories there were dining halls, washing facilities, a hospital, a church and a synagogue and even a music pavilion. Hamburg became the principal departure point
, surpassing Bremerhaven (see German Emigration Center Bremerhaven
As emigration reached its peak, further halls were added, in 1905 and again in 1906/7. And so the emigration centre became indeed a small “city” in its own right. The largest number of emigrants passing through the centre was reached in 1913, at 170,000.
The First World War
interrupted the emigration business, and the former emigrants’ halls were turned into a military hospital. After the war, emigration continued, but on a much smaller scale. It came to a complete end in 1934
in the early Nazi period, when the complex was handed over to the SS. They demolished some of the buildings to make space for new ones. After WWII
, some remaining buildings first served as emergency accommodation for citizens who had lost their homes as a result of war-time aerial bombings (see Nikolaikirche
). Later they provided space for mixed uses by various businesses.
Most of the buildings were demolished in the early 1960s, and the single last remaining original hall fell victim to the wrecking ball too in 2004.
That same year the plan for the emigration museum was first developed. In 2005, construction began of three double-hall reconstructions, copies of what the original buildings would have looked like. The project was financed in a “public-private partnership” between a dedicated association and the city administration of Hamburg. This first incarnation of the BallinStadt exhibition opened its doors in 2007. And it was in this form that I first saw it in 2008.
Apparently, the expected visitor numbers did not materialize and fell short by more than a third. In 2016, the original exhibition was closed and subsequently most of it was reorganized and set up anew. Thematically it was expanded, but as I could see when I revisited the place in 2021, there have also been losses. For instance: the former reconstructed dormitory with over a dozen beds has gone, only a couple of those beds are now integrated into the first hall. The Statue of Liberty behind a wire-mesh fence in the arrival-in-America and Ellis Island section has also disappeared. It’s been replaced by a free-standing Miss Liberty in a garish pink colour.
The most important difference from an international perspective is that while the previous exhibition was almost 100% bilingual in German and English (with good-quality translations), the new exhibition is almost entirely in German only! Just a few general intro panels also feature English. Apparently you can get a printed brochure in English to take around the exhibition with you, but I don’t know of how much help that would be (verdicts on TripAdvisor make me sceptical). To partly alleviate this lack of English, you can use an audio-guide (on your smartphone). The museum’s website gives access to 76 audio tracks relating to all parts of the exhibitions. But, and this is a big BUT in capital letters: the audio is machine-generated (probably from some text-to-audio converter software), not just the English, also the German (and presumably the French and Polish as well) and I for one find this totally unlistenable to; intonation is unnatural and jerky and just feels so fake that it distracts more than it informs. I could never get used to that sort of narration. I presume this was done in order to save the money required for hiring a real person recording the read-out texts. But that miserly measure badly backfired, in my opinion.
Another change that came with the reinvention of the museum in 2016 was a slight change in its name. Whereas in the past the artificial word BallinStadt was the main element and the emigration topic specified in a subtitle only, it is now turned around: “Auswanderermuseum BallinStadt Hamburg”, but locally it is still better known as simply BallinStadt.
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. – but there's also 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 and Steven Spielberg!
What there is to see:
The museum is spread over three
double-winged, U-shaped red-brick buildings
in the exact style of the original emigration halls at this location. They are numbered “Haus 1” to “Haus 3”. House 2 and 3 also have large glass structures covering the semi courtyard between the two wings. You first have to make your way to House No. 2
to get your ticket
, unless you already bought one online (see below
). You then proceed to House No. 3 at the far end of the complex. This houses the intro section.
Note that the texts and labels in the museum are mostly in German only, but you can either get a brochure with translations at the ticket desk or use an online version on your smartphone, also to access audio-guide tracks (but these are computer-generated and thus don’t sound natural – I find them impossible to listen to for more than a few seconds; see above).
In the first section there’s an intro film played in a loop on a large screen that provides a basic overview. Also here is a scale model set into the floor under glass plates. This shows the three reconstructed buildings of today’s BallinStadt surrounded by a map of the other structures and buildings that once stood here. You can see that the whole complex was vastly bigger than today’s three blocks.
Text-and-photo panels outline the history of the emigration centre from its beginnings in 1901 and shed light on various different aspects, such as arrival, regulations and rules, food and drink, embarkation and so forth.
Artefacts on display include a baby’s cot and numerous period suitcases and baskets dotted around all over the place. There are also three camp beds representing the dormitory accommodation. But these are free standing and too few to really convey the impression of what the dormitories looked like (whereas the previous incarnation of the museum exhibition until 2016 had a large dormitory reconstruction with over a dozen such beds in two rows).
Young children get their own tailored museum visit, through stations at which child-friendly information is conveyed by a virtual guide in the form of a clever rat named “Jette”! Soft-toy rats indicate such stations. This is aimed at 5- to 10- year-old kids.
Then you leave Building number 1 and proceed to the next one, Haus 2, which houses the main permanent exhibition. Btw.: make sure to keep hold of your ticket, you’ll need it again for entering Building No. 2!
The first section is a kind of intro about the topic of migration in general. All over the far wall various statistics are thrown about. For instance that only 4% of all living languages are European, or that since 2008 more people live in cities than in the countryside. Interesting is also that while migration is a global phenomenon affecting millions, it’s still true that 98% of all people never leave their homes to migrate. In addition to the fixed stats, there are also a number of screens adding more. The only artefacts are yet more items of ancient luggage and a couple of handcarts.
The second section looks at the history of migration from the 16th century onwards, beginning with the “discovery” of the “New World”. The “long” 19th century gets particular attention as it was then that mass migration from Europe really set in as the European populations grew, outstripping job opportunities and leading to poverty. The whole section is built around a large scale model of an old sailing ship (my guess is maybe 18th century). There’s even a spot marked on the floor where to stand for a recommended selfie. That was a first for me – to see selfie-taking actively encouraged by a museum! I sincerely hope this won’t find copycats at more seriously dark sites such as concentration camp memorials.
room focuses on the so-called “pull
and push factors
” in migration. That is, incentives for attracting workers away from their homeland, e.g. to work in colonies or the various “gold rushes”. A prime example of a territory to which this applied is of course North America, especially the USA
. In contrast, persecution, poverty and violence can drive people away from their homelands. The artefacts in this room seem rather arbitrary, and are arbitrarily placed too, namely glued to the walls, i.e. at 90 degree angles to the floor, or hanging from the ceiling … bicycles, toys, tools, shopping trolleys – not all of it makes immediate sense. There are also audio stations where you can listen to selected individuals’ personal stories.
The largest item here is a “Trabbi
” passenger car from the GDR
. This presumably to stand symbolically for the many GDR citizens who fled (or attempted to flee) to the West. The whole approach is global and pan-historical, from the early 19th century to contemporary refugee crises in Europe and displaced persons in current conflict zones such as Syria and Afghanistan. While this seems a bit jumpy and incoherent, it is all tied together by the many epoch-independent factors such as social inequality, racism, natural disasters, repression and persecution, war, hunger, and even slavery.
It is also in this section that the first of the several “Simigrant” stations can be found (a blend of ‘simulation’ and ‘migrant’, I take it). These are interactive machines into which you can insert a “travel document” (I assume you get that at the ticket desk) and start an interactive game about various migration scenarios. This is aimed at 9- to 14-year-old children. Needless to say, as I fall so far outside that demographic I did not test this and hence can’t say whether or how this “Simigrant” experience works.
The role of the shipping companies is a topic in the next section
about “Enticements and Promises
”. Of course the growing numbers of people willing to cross the Atlantic to the Americas provided a lucrative business, not least for the Hamburg-based HAPAG (see above
). Initially passengers had very little comfort on board of ships that were primarily freighters. But these were gradually superseded by dedicated passenger ships.
This section also 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, as well as varoous crockeryy items found in the wreck, are on display, amongst more nautical-themed exhibits.
sections are entitled “Origins
” and “What we leave behind
”. Various panels and screens outline the phases of migration by country (Britain
, and so forth). Again there are loads of luggage items on display, dummy migrants, and various items glued to the wall, such as hats, rugs and chairs. In one corner is a replica of a motorcycle that was given to a Portuguese “Gastarbeiter” (‘guest worker’) who in 1964 was the one millionth such worker to come to West Germany. Less than ten years later the call for migrant workers had ended in Germany and immigration was tightened up.
The eighth and central section of the museum is called “Departure and Journey” and it’s here that the largest exhibit is to be found: a mock ship’s bow sitting in a shallow pond of water. It’s not quite as convincing as the much larger and more natural equivalent at the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven, but still. At BallinStadt the hull has holes through which you can see various photos from migration scenes around the world and through history.
Inside the hull is a large display of luggage, goods boxes, dummy passengers and even a mock horse! In the old pre-2016 exhibition there was a horse that looked very similar so I wonder whether it is indeed the same. However, in the old exhibition the horse’s head moved – it was animatronic exhibit. The current horse, on the other hand, remained motionless during my visit in August 2021. At the back wall you can peek through mock bull’s eyes into a large display case of various maritime exhibits including ship models, binoculars and whatnot. Then you leave the hull again and emerge on the other side of it.
, in section 9
, 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 the Ellis Island
immigration centre in New York
. This section is very different from its equivalent in the predecessor exhibition before 2016. While in that you were greeted by a Statue of Liberty behind a wire-mesh fence (as those detained on Ellis Island may have seen it), the new exhibition has a free-standing pink Statue of Liberty in the centre of the room. She’s surrounded by panels on which are printed the various questions new arrivals would be asked by immigration officials; more such panels are above under the ceiling. What is more hidden now are the revelations of which of these questions were “trick questions” (e.g. if you you gave an affirmative answer to the question “Do you already have relatives in the USA?” you could be detained until these relatives collected you). The explanations of the catalogue of questions has now been relegated to a screen. A sign-of-our-times tribute to digitalization, I suppose.
In the section “Regulations and Opportunities
” you can explore the changes over time of such aspects. Included was also the German Citizenship test that people have to pass in order to apply for a German
passport. The test is just one of many hurdles, but not the trickiest one, also given that you only need to get 50% right to pass. I had no trouble answering all the questions and was only slightly unsure on one of them. I’ve heard that the equivalent test in Britain
is much, much harder, so that even many British-born citizens would struggle.
One quite revealing subsection gives global population percentages for various criteria, such as wealth, education and food distribution (some 70% don’t have enough to eat!), language (unsurprisingly, Chinese is the largest group here) and religion. I was somewhat surprised that atheism is actually the second-largest group here, at nearly a quarter, just behind Christianity at one third.
couple of sections focus on “Opinions
” and “Staying Connected
”. Various negative attitudes towards immigrants throughout the ages are examined here. Some look depressingly familiar. This part of the exhibition also highlights various aspects of keeping some Germanness alive in America, through bookstores, food, festivals, etc. – such as the countless “Oktoberfests” held in the USA
There is a central installation called “German Heimat” (the latter word means ‘home’, as in geographical/cultural home), and here you can encounter the stories of a number of German immigrants or descendants thereof on audio tracks and panels.
The final section in the main exhibition is called “Education” and its central part consists of a mock classroom with more screens and panels on various aspects of the role of education vs. prejudices.
Then you come back to the intro sections where the main exhibition had begun. After exiting Haus 2 you can carry on into Building No. 1 where there is the space for temporary extra exhibitions on regularly changing related topics. When I was there in August 2021 they were just setting up a new temporary exhibition so I couldn’t go in. I also didn’t go back to the other parts in Haus 1, the cafeteria, shop and genealogical centre.
The shop I remember from my 2008 visit as fairly large and selling all kinds of emigration-related souvenirs, books, postcards, as well as some maritime knick-knacks and generally Hamburg
-related touristy stuff.
Those interested in tracing their ancestors (or anybody else's) can do so at one of a series of computer terminals also in this building. The original passenger lists of the ships that took some 5 million emigrants from Hamburg to America provide one of the best such research sources worldwide. There are also other databanks available and genealogy experts are at hand to help.
All in all, my impression after my second visit to BallinStadt was that while some aspects have been improved, in particular the wider coverage including modern migration and its pull-push factors today, in other respects I thought the newer exhibition also included a few steps backwards, especially from an international perspective with the exhibition now being mostly monolingual. With the reconstructed dormitory gone, BallinStadt has also lost a little of its place authenticity. And I found the coverage of arrival in America, esp. Ellis Island, inferior to the previous exhibition. That’s why I now docked the star rating at the top from four to three.
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.
Access and costs: Easy enough to get to, but comparatively expensive.
Details: The easiest way to get to BallinStadt is to take the regional metro train (S-Bahn) S3 or S31, which frequently depart from the Central Station (Hauptbahnhof). It's just three stops to the S-Bahn stop Veddel/BallinStadt and from there a short signposted walk.
For a scenic alternative you could also take a boat: BallinStadt has its own stop on the "Circle Line" departing from Landungsbrücken that connects Hamburg
's main tourist sights that are on or by the river.
Admission: 13 EUR (as of late 2021) per head, standard adult rate. Some concessions apply (e.g. children up to 12 years old: 7 EUR, pensioners, students, disabled, unemployed: 11 EUR).
Opening times: daily from 10 a.m. to 6 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 could spend the best part of a whole day here. Being selective you'd still need to allow some two hours. Even hurrying through the exhibition takes at least an hour. (That's why last admission is 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
– about 1500 mostly Jewish female prisoners were subjected to forced labour and inhumane living conditions here. Today the building shows nothing more than a couple of commemorative plaques 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 and Fischmarkt, 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 Hamburg
's city centre.
In the other direction, the “Energiebunker
” in Wilhelmsburg might be of interest to some. It’s one of Hamburg’s remaining Flak Towers (cf. the ones in Vienna
) or anti-aircraft-gun towers, a massive concrete relic from WWII
. These days the concrete is polished, a new base has been added and the roof and one side are covered in solar panels (hence the name, which translates as ‘energy bunker’); inside is a small exhibition about the bunkers’ history, and it’s this that makes the place particularly interesting from a dark-tourism perspective. However, the opening times are very limited (only Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.), which is why I still haven’t managed to visit this place myself, but it’s high on my list for the next time I’m in Hamburg on a weekend. You can get to the bunker from outside Veddel S-Bahn station by bus, e.g. line 13, get out at Veringstraße Mitte, turn left into Neuhöfer Str. and you’re there. The bunker is so big, it’s impossible to miss.
Those interested in the topic should note that there is a similar emigration museum
'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.
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 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, especially 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).
Similarly, the whole emphasis of the thematic content is somewhat different: at BallinStadt: the reasons for emigration are explored in more depth, also from a wider perspective historically and geographically, and what became of emigrants in their new homes is also given more space in the 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 by handing out to every visitor 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 stations. At BallinStadt lets you pick and choose whose story you want to listen to. at audio stations, via the audio guide or on those "Simigrant" machines. However, nothing forces you to follow all the personal stories through to the end, and at both museums it could easily become a bit tedious trying to do so. So it's not such an important aspect after all, especially 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
. At BallinStadt the section about arrival in the USA is painted much rosier (even literally, with that pink Statue of Liberty), and coverage of the often traumatic interrogation by immigration officers is now toned down in the new exhibition compared to its predecessor until 2016. So on that front it is now less ‘dark’, as it were.
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.
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).
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 20-25 mins., it's not a particularly scenic route, though. For those like me with a liking for all things harbour-y, the place is a true gem. 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!
- BallinStadt 01 - brick buildings
- BallinStadt 02 - first hall
- BallinStadt 03 - the former size of the complex in 2D, the buildings today in 3D
- BallinStadt 04 - suitcases
- BallinStadt 05 - simple beds and cot
- BallinStadt 06 - layout of the main exhibition
- BallinStadt 07 - first hall
- BallinStadt 08 - migration stats
- BallinStadt 09 - early days
- BallinStadt 10 - Trabbi and lots of stuff hanging from the ceiling
- BallinStadt 11 - audio stations and dummy migrant
- BallinStadt 12 - bunks
- BallinStadt 13 - shipwreck piece
- BallinStadt 14 - migrating for work
- BallinStadt 15 - a motorcycle for the one millionth guest worker in Germany
- BallinStadt 16 - vertical arrangement of exhibits
- BallinStadt 17 - vertical hats and cases still life
- BallinStadt 18 - sitting on packed cases
- BallinStadt 19 - central mock ship bow section
- BallinStadt 20 - inside
- BallinStadt 21 - maritime exhibits
- BallinStadt 22 - simulated migration
- BallinStadt 23 - coming out on the other side
- BallinStadt 24 - arrival in America
- BallinStadt 25 - New York, New York
- BallinStadt 26 - home connections
- BallinStadt 27 - German books and anti-immigrant prejudices
- BallinStadt 28 - paperwork
- BallinStadt 29 - exhibits, screen and drawers
- BallinStadt 30 - reconstructed dormitory in 2008 - removed in 2016
- BallinStadt 31 - caged Statue of Liberty in 2008 - also gone now
- BallinStadt 32 - genealogical database centre in 2008 - still there, but modernized