German Emigration Center Bremerhaven

Dr. Simone Eick

German Emigration Center

Columbusstr. 65 27568 Bremerhaven


Bremerhaven was a port of emigration, a town of farewells from 1830 to 1974. "Leb wohl!", "Do zobaczenia!", "Zei gezunt!" - words of farewell spoken by thousands of German, Polish, or Jewish emigrants, words full of hope, fear and tears. Over seven million people from Germany and Eastern Europe went via Bremerhaven to the New World, among them Else Arnecke.
She was born in Bremerhaven in the year 1911. During her first 18 years of her life in Germany she experienced nothing but war, revolution, inflation and economic crises. Having decided it was time she take the business of life into her own hands, she sailed for New York from Bremerhaven in 1929.
Once in America Else Arnecke worked her way up the employment ladder, starting out as a mother's helper, then as a waitress at the world-renowned Waldorf-Astoria.
She attended night school where she took courses in bookkeeping and following completion, moved up to the hotel's bookkeeping department. In order to take care of her elderly mother during the difficult war years, Else Arnecke returned to Germany in 1942.
Following her mother's death, Else Arnecke went back to the United States in 1951 where she worked at the Waldorf-Astoria again, later at the St. Regies and Carlyle, meeting fascinating and prominent people such as the Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis Simpson, and the artist Salvador Dali.
Else Arnecke stayed in the United States for another 20 years, prior to returning to Germany in 1971 as an American citizen. Today, at the age of 97, she lives in Bremerhaven. Else Arnecke is a special friend of the German Emigration Center, her first American Passport was laid into the foundation cornerstone of the German Emigration Center.

The growing of a new museum and its collection

On August 8th 2005 there was the Grand Opening of the German Emigration Center with the then German minister of Interior Otto Schilly and 700 guests from all over Europe and the United States.
Since then the Center had become one of the most popular among German museums. In the middle of June 2008 over 650 000 visitors have seen the exhibition since the opening. In a market survey done by the German Emigration Center were over 6 000 visitors asked: 94 percent are coming from all over Germany, especially Lower Saxony, North-Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg; six percent are coming from abroad, most of them from the USA, Switzerland and Austria. They are of all ages and belong to all social levels. 96 Percent of the visitors would recommend the German Emigration Center to family and friends. In a market survey among academics in Bremerhaven done by the country of Bremen around 55 percent of them say that the quality of life in Bremerhaven has grew because of the German Emigration Center.
Eight special exhibitions were shown and a lot of lectures, symposia and concerts around the theme of migration happened to be in the house. Over 2 800 items are now in the collection of the museum and it grows every week. Mainly the people donate pictures, documents illustrating the crossing, the arrival and the life in the new country, but most important: Every donation contents the story of a migrant. Each of these biographies, like the one of Else Arnecke, are unique examples of migration. They illustrate a behaviour of human kind, they are part of the intangible heritage. They are serving research work about the process of acculturation. But most important: they are also the heart of the exhibition and keep it alive.

The concept

The concept of the German Emigration Center was developed by Studio Andreas Heller from Hamburg/Germany which was the general planer of the architecture, design and concept of the museum. The concept team was interdisciplinary: Architects, designers, art historians and historians were working together. The country of Bremen and the city of Bremerhaven financed the German Emigration Center with 20,4 million Euros as a Private Public Partnership Project. It was clear that after the opening a private company has to operate the museum. So the company "paysage house 1" was founded inter alia by Andreas Heller and operated the house since the opening in August 2005.
The German Emigration Center is part of a new area showing cultural highlights of Bremerhaven: There is the German Shipyard Museum, a Zoo on the waterfront with animals from the ocean, the German Emigration Center and there will be the "Klimahaus" in 2009, a science center about the theme of climate. There are new hotels and a new marina. It''s a very attractive area especially for tourists.
Before the opening not all political parties in the country of Bremen supported the foundation of a private migration museum in Bremerhaven in the years 2003 and 2004. There was a lot of convincing work to do by Studio Andreas Heller and the supporters of the house, like the mayor of Bremerhaven, a union of businessmen from Bremerhaven called bd"Initiativkreis Erlebniswelt Auswanderung" and a club called "Friends of a migration museum Bremerhaven". And they succeed. For Germany this kind of a PPP-Project for a museum foundation was new that is why the house still gets a lot of attention by politicians. The demand that the German Emigration Center will have to be operated privately and because of that has to finance itself was always in mind during the conception. It was a sensitive task to elaborate a concept on such an important social and controversial theme of today like migration and also to let the visitors pay for it. The main idea was to sensitize the visitors for migration today by getting them in touch with the historical European mass migration. As Bremerhaven was the biggest German emigration port and one of the biggest transit ports for Eastern European people the concept concentrated on that migration. Mostly because in a theme museum it is extremely important to be authentically so the visitors can feel the history of the location.
Next step was the decision to reconstruct places, rooms and situation that were the most important ones for migrants between 1850 and 1950. The visitors can move in the historical reconstructions of a harbour scene, in the steerages of a sailing and of two different steam ships, at the Registry Hall at Ellis Island, the biggest immigration station in the USA. After that they have a deep impression of saying goodbye, of a risky journey and of the difficulties of the entry to a new homeland. The visitors move through the historical scenes but they are not alone: They have escort by an historical migrant: The visitor follows the biography of his or her migrant till the descendants today via media stations and can see memorial objects of the family in showcases. At the moment there are 18 biographies the visitors can follow. Each of them typical for one type of migration for one period of time. Besides biographies who ended up in the USA there are also those who went to Argentina or Brazil. These biographies are very popular among the visitors, everybody is easily willing to identify himself with the person he is accompany during the museum visit. For the media stations there is a very easy to handle RFID-System used. Each visitor gets an own RFID-Ticket at the entry, it's a little smart card plugged in his or her personal "Boarding Pass". A paper which has the portrait of the historical migrants on it. The smart card starts the biographical media stations and it also can be used for saving data like pictures taken in the exhibition or the data found in the genealogical databases offered in the museum.

At the end of the historical tour there is the bd"Ocean Cinema". Two short documentaries were produced by the German Emigration Center, directed by Ciro Cappellari: "Welcome home" and "24h Buenos Aires". They are showing the life of migrants and their descendants in the USA and in Argentina. Both movies are costly and elaborated produced and they are extremely important for the exhibition because they adopt the theme of migration in a very modern way by showing people of today in their home, at work or with their family. Seeing the film its hard to look away like saying this does not concern me because you know these people are alive.
After the cinema in the room called "Forum Migration" the visitors get information about migration today in a very intensive way by showing facts and figures. There are also four genealogical databases in the room where the visitors can search for emigrated ancestors. Nearly every visitor looks at the database and found somebody with his name. Putting these themes together again - the topical one and the personal one - is another way to force people not to look away but to see that migration is something that concerns everybody. We are offering a lot of symposia and lectures were we invite people to discuss with us. Mostly these events are very political and emotional but that is what we want our museum to be: alive!.

Copyright: Deutsches Auswandererhaus / Foto: Herbert Dehn


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