First we visited the Speicherstadt Museum which is a museum based in one of Hamburg’s spectacular and distinctive warehouses built between the 1880s and 1920s. 20,000 people were uprooted to make room for the “Warehouse City”. The warehouses were built to store coffee, tea, cocoa, spices and tobacco. The museum presents the work that was carried out in the warehouses. We also saw an exhibition of coffee machines, some quite beautiful and ingenious. Interestingly the museum is run as a private business by its manager, although it has close connections with the Museum der Arbeit.
We then had a tour, first on foot and then by boat, around the harbour. We noted that Hamburg’s redundant port areas had not yet been turned into rich residential areas as has happened in other European cities. We could still see some goods – coffee and carpets in particular – being loaded and stored in the old warehouses. Nevertheless, spectacular change has occurred within the last century in Hamburg’s harbour. We saw this on the boat tour, when we noted that it was not until we reached the container terminals that we actually saw people at work. Up until then we went past silent and apparently empty ships and docksides and a few pleasure boats; in contrast there was plenty of movement on the nearby roads.
We visited, of course, the Museum der Arbeit and saw its elegant and thought-provoking displays. In its introductory displays it focuses on single objects, for instance a collar, and uses them as symbols for the wider story the museum wishes to tell. Simple objects are therefore treated as a gallery would normally treat a work of art. This controversial method forces visitors to look closely at objects which they might otherwise pass by, and makes us re-consider the value usually ascribed to social history objects. Upstairs we see displays about various industries in Hamburg: the printing industry; fish processing; a badge making workshop; merchant shipping companie and the former rubber factory where the museum is now situated. Gender issues feature prominently in the museum. Domestic work and child rearing are presented as being another part of a person’s working life.
We also saw two of the Museum der Arbeit’s out-stations, a harbour barge and the Schwimm – Dampfkran (floating steam crane). The crane was used to keep the Keil Canal open and would be away from Hamburg for up to two weeks at a time. The implications of this for the families of the men who worked on the crane is recorded in a display about family life.
Papers were presented by Annette Vasstrom and Peter Ludvigsen (Arbejdermuseet, Copenhagen), Alex Werner (Museum of London), Donald Hyslop (Southampton City Museums) and Gernot Krankenhagen (Museum der Arbeit, Hamburg). Copies of these papers can be seen in this newsletter. The papers focused on how harbour life can be presented in a museum and the documentation of dock workers lives.
Peter Ludvigsen gave a report on the work of Worklab since it was established two years ago.
There are nineteen members (made up of roughly half institutions and half individuals). Not all members have paid, late payers are being notified. We would like to see membership grow to 30 – 35. There are some 200 on the mailing list, ie individuals and institutions which have expressed an interest in Worklab.
It was agreed that, in order to reduce costs, the newsletter will now only be produced electronically. The Workers Museum will create a Worklab website.
TICCIH, the International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage, is interested in having more contact with museums and would therefore like to develop more links with Worklab. It was agreed that the links already established with TICCIH should be extended.
Annual Conference 2000
This will be held in Manchester in the autumn. Further details will be sent to members when available. We discussed possible themes for the conference: interpretation; trade unions and how they can work with museums; artisans in the industrial age; women’s work; new forms of work in the 21st century; recording the changes in contemporary work; work and ethnicity. Delegates agreed that work and ethnicity would be a stimulating theme. Myna Trustram is looking into the feasibility of organising the annual conference for 2000 on this theme.
The Social History Curators’ Group in the UK is planning its annual conference in July 2000 on the theme of “working lives”. It was proposed to hold the Worklab conference at the same time since our interests are similar, but this was rejected as being too early in the year. It was agreed to promote the SHCG meeting via the newsletter.
It was agreed that one way of increasing the membership of Worklab would be to hold conferences on themes of broad interest.
Thai Labour Museum, Bangkok
The conference was attended by two delegates from the Thai Labour Museum which receives assistance and encouragement from the Museum der Arbeit. The Museum was opened in 1993 and aims to tell the story of Thai workers, to preserve the records of Thai trade unions and to provide a cultural centre for the very disparate Thai labour movement.
Discussion on “Hamburg’s Museums Go Independent”
Finally, a discussion was held on the constitutional changes which have occurred in Hamburg’s municipal museums. Along with other museums in Hamburg, the Museum der Arbeit is now governed by its own board rather than the Ministry of Culture and has control over its own budget. Delegates discussed the pros and cons of being independent and some parallels were drawn with developments in other countries.
Peter Ludvigsen formally thanked Jurgen Ellermeyer and Gernot Krankenhagen for hosting the conference.
National Museum of Labour History
As printed in Newsletter 3/2000