The new museum opens its doors to the public on Saturday. It is housed in the original buildings of the Red Star Line shipping company in the North of Antwerp, close to the river Scheldt and the port, in a district called "Het Eilandje" (the small island).
The brick buildings breathe history. The fact that the museum is housed within the original walls, at the very same place where hundreds of thousands of passengers arrived, gives it something extra. The Antwerp Alderman for Culture, Philip Heylen (photo), put it this way: "We have not built a museum, but we have restored an original building. If you put your hand against these walls, you can almost feel the spirit of those who embarked here."
The Red Star Line carried approximately 2 million people from Antwerp to the United States between 1873 and 1934. Many of them came from Eastern Europe, and many were Jews. Only a minority were Belgians, most of them West-Flemings.
In the museum, you literally follow the footsteps of the third class passengers that had comply with a number of formalities before they could embark on the giant ships. That is, if everything went well.
A place of emotions
The tour includes many multimedia applications (audio, video, films etc) and is also interactive, as it gives you the chance to go and find detailed information yourself if you wish.
Apart from a large number of memorabilia, it also brings the very personal stories of people who arrived in Antwerp over a century ago, often after completing an exhausting voyage by train.
Antwerp as the gateway to a new life, a new adventure in the United States or Canada: "This is our Ellis Island at the Scheldt", the Antwerp Alderman for Tourism Koen Kennis says. Antwerp hopes that many Americans will make the effort to travel to Antwerp to discover the roots of their ancestors. The museum actually hopes for new stories to come in.
However, for many people, it was still uncertain whether they would actually be able to get on one of the ships to cross the Atlantic Ocean. A big obstacle was the medical check. Trachoma, an eye disease of which there were no official reports in the US, was a reason for many to be sent back. This often meant that families were torn apart, or that difficult choices had to be made.
Albert Einstein, Fred Astaire and many others
After you passed in the footsteps of the passengers, through the shower room and along the doctor's cabinet, you can find out more about the giant ships that sailed the ocean. What was on the menu at that time? How big was the difference between first, second and third class? Who was working on the ships and what were their tasks?
The tour ends in America, and highlights how a number of personalities (or people who later became famous) also used the Red Star Line, like Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin or the father of Fred Astaire.
There is also an opportunity to have a panoramic view of the port (photo) and the city. A tower was built in the form of a giant chimney of a steam ship. The view from the top is breathtaking. As you watch the curve of the River Scheldt, you can easily imagine how it must have been in the past when the giant ships left for America, and for the people saying goodbye to their family and friends at the river side.
A large window on migration
The Red Star Line Museum wants to be more than just a place evoking memories from the past. It wants to focus on the phenomenon of migration through history, and to put it into a larger perspective.
For Antwerp, a city with over 170 different nationalities, migration has always been important. "Migration gave a spirit and DNA to Antwerp", says Philip Heylen. "In the past, Antwerp served as a gateway to a new life. Today, people want to stay here. Migration has been playing a key role for tens of thousands of years, and continues to do so. This will always stay like this."
The Red Star Line Museum opens on Saturday 28 September for the public. It will be open every day, except on Mondays. The information plaques are in Dutch, English and French, but more languages are available in guidebooks at the entrance.