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History and Concept

The German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven is situated on a historic site in the New Harbor, which opened in 1852 and was the departure point for approximately 1.2 million emigrants to the New World by 1890. The New Harbor was adjacent to the Old Harbor (Alter Hafen), the Imperial Harbors (Kaiserhäfen) and the Columbus Wharf, all departure points for the 7.2 million emigrants who sailed for the New World from Bremerhaven.

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Neuer Hafen (New Harbor) in Bremerhaven, c 1888. The site of the storage shed in the center of the picture is now the site of the German Emigration Center. © Deutsches Schifffahrtsmuseum

The German Emigration Center opened on 8 August 2005. For more than 20 years people from the cultural, economic and political spheres of Bremerhaven have been working towards the building of an emigration museum in what was once Germany’s largest port of emigration. The Freundeskreis Deutsches Auswandererhaus (Society of Friends of the German Emigration Center), founded formerly as the Förderverein Deutsches Auswanderermuseum (German Emigration Museum Development Association) in 1985, and the Initiativkreis Deutsches Auswandererhaus (German Emigration Center Initiative), founded formerly as the Initiativkreis Erlebniswelt Auswanderung (Emigration Museum Initiative) in 1998, particularly supported the museum project. Thanks to their commitment it was finally possible to realize the building of a museum unique in Europe dedicated to the German and European history of emigration and immigration.

The concept and design of the new museum wing were carried out by Studio Andreas Heller Architects & Designers in Hamburg. The German Emigration Center is a private-public partnership project financed by funds from the federal state of Bremen and the city of Bremerhaven. After its opening in 2005 the museum was operated by the private operating company Paysage House 1 – Gesellschaft für Kultur und Freizeit mbH & Co. KG. In this regard the German Emigration Center also occupies a special place in the cultural history museum landscape of Germany.

On April 22, 2012 the German Emigration Center opened its new extension wing, which focuses on the history of Germany as a country of immigration. Both the new wing and the partial modification of the main building were funded by the federal government, the federal state of Bremen with funds from the European Regional Development Funds program (EFRE Program Bremen) and the private operating company.

By relating emigration and immigration in the past and the present the German Emigration Center has become the first migration museum in Germany. In 2007 the German Emigration Center won the prestigious European Museum of the Year Award for its innovative exhibition concept.

Film and Cinema

The Roxy Cinema features the charm of a 1950s cinema. Built in the characteristic style of postwar architecture, this cinema is typical of the days of the economic miracle in Germany. The foyer presents classic scenes related to the history of immigration to the Federal Republic of Germany while audio stations tell of the influence immigration had on literature, film and pop culture.

But the two short films shown are far removed from the nostalgia of the economic miracle. Grimme Award winner Ciro Cappellari made two documentary films exclusively for the German Emigration Center: Welcome Home (2005) and 24h Buenos Aires (2007). Both films, distilled in powerful images, present the essence of the stories of German emigrants and their descendants in the U.S.A. and in Argentina’s capital. Cappellari captures the expectations, dreams and experiences of each individual and brings these together in a moving personal account.

Tracing Roots with State-of-the-Art Technology

The German Emigration Center is full of state-of-the-art museum technology, beginning with the admission ticket, an iCard. The electronic boarding pass allows visitors to embark on a personal journey of 300 years of immigration and emigration history. Each iCard contains the story of an individual who either emigrated to the New World or found a new home in Germany. The iCard also activates many audio stations and interactive displays making a museum visit a thoroughly personal and emotional experience. Individual information and pictures enable identification with the actual person and invite visitors to become more involved with their story and, thus, the history.

RFID (Radio Frequency Identity) technology can be used in many ways. For example, visitors can dress up in historic emigrant clothing and have their picture taken at a photo station, then have it printed later on their way out. Or research results for emigrated ancestors from one of the four international databases may be stored and then printed out for visitors to take home.

The Architecture of the German Emigration Center

Emigration and immigration require two things: hope and courage, the courage to do without. The architecture of the German Emigration Center reflects these two qualities. The wood planked upper level, an angular block, fits into the soft basic oval, exposed concrete design of the main building. The two elements appear to be opposing poles, yet they are inseparably connected to each other. The soaring concrete wings emphasize the opposite aspects of migration and represent a stylized waving kerchief, a symbol synonymous with bidding farewell but at the same time evoking the hope of seeing one another again.

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The cube-shaped extension wing, a wooden “box,” a building for safekeeping, contains the biographies of the newly presented history of immigration. A bridge connects both structures and hence the history of emigration to the history of immigration, symbolically illustrating that the difference between emigration and immigration is, above all else, a question of perspective.

Awards

The German Emigration Center has recorded several successes in its short history that exceed high visitor numbers.

In 2007 the theme museum won the European Museum of the Year Award. It was the first time in 15 years that a German museum had won the award. The innovative exhibition concept and the emotional approach to the subject of emigration convinced the European Museum Forum (EMF) jury. This positions the German Emigration Center in a league with other internationally renowned museums such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao or the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The following year, in 2008, the German Emigration Center received the Best in Heritage Award by the European Initiative of Excellence. These awards underscore the importance of the museum as an outstanding institution dealing with emigration in the past while focusing simultaneously on present-day developments.

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