The Red Star Line museum tells the story about how an estimated 2.5 million people seeking their fortune in America, travelled to Antwerp from places across Europe in order to get hold of a ticket on one of the steamers of the Red Star Line that would enable them to cross the Atlantic. It brings a story about migration, people's dreams and old steamers, as the Red Star Line company operated between 1873 and 1934.
Although there are no exact figures about which nationalities are visiting the museum (a big survey is due for next spring, red.), the Museum Coordinator Luc Verheyen told Flandersnews that foreign languages are an obvious part of the museum.
"You're bound to hear people speaking French, English or German here. Some visitors approach us with their personal story, as they have a clear link with the history of the shipping company, e.g. someone from Massachusetts whose grandmother or grandfather made the journey to New York in one of the steamers," Mr Verheyen explains.
Media from abroad quickly found their way to the "Eilandje" in Antwerp: "We've had the press agencies AP and Reuters, but also the BBC and CNN and TV-stations from the Czech Republic, Hungary or Poland, among others." Many of the immigrants were from Eastern Europe and many of them were Jews, trying to escape the German regime.
Visitors often have something to donate to the museum. "We're talking about photos, documents or memorabilia. We are receiving documents or objects almost on a daily basis", Luc Verheyen explains.
Hilda Van Hove is responsible for the registration of everything that comes in. "We received a painting from 1894 (photo on top). It shows the Rijnkaai (the quay where the steamers used to begin their journey to New York and where the present museum is located, red.) with Red Star Line steamers. It was purchased by a man at an auction. His grandfather made the journey and later worked on 5th Avenue in New York."
"My 1928 world cruise"
"We also received a piece of embroidery that was made at the request of a man who once travelled with the Red Star Line. It shows a dragon and flags at the top and below this, from left to right, his wife, a picture of the cruise ship Belgenland and the man himself. "To remember my 1928 world cruise" it says at the bottom." The work was probably displayed at the man's home, and would have been the start of many holiday conversations.
Donating this was an emotional moment for the owners, but by giving it to the museum, they allowed the man to be back with the Red Star Line, just like 85 years ago, Hilda Van Hove explains. The museum also receives a lot of personal stories, note books and documents.
The museum boasts an interactive section where visitors can start, continue or intensify their search for their ancestors and/or possible family members living abroad. "You often had whole families that travelled to the U.S. Some family members returned to Belgium, others stayed."