Natasha and I can never resist a history museum, and so we decided to spend our Saturday visiting the Museum for Hamburg History. We headed for an area on the border of St. Pauli and the Hamburg Neustadt along the Elbe River. Helpfully, our hotel near Berliner Tor positioned us well for a train running directly to the Landungsbrücken (“Landing stages”) stop.
We emerged from the train station to see the waterfront. We had arrived around 9:30, and relatively few people were out and about. The stone landing buildings (constructed 1907-1909) are really pretty, and a modern promenade extends in either direction along the shore for quite some distance. The landing is two-thirds of a kilometer of length. We “bookmarked” the site, knowing we would want to return later in the day. For now, though, we wanted to reach the museum early in case we were only able to schedule our visit at a later time; neither Natasha nor I could determine how to purchase tickets from the website.
We should have realized that marching to the museum would require us to climb quite a height above sea level. We huffed and puffed up the stairs to the Hotel Hafen Hamburg, but soon we realized we were on the wrong side of the ravine centered on Helgoländer Allee. We walked across the bridge of Seewartenstrasse to the east side. We thought we would walk north through the park there, but a heavily graffitied wall around construction pushed us further east. We had a tantalizing glimpse of an imposing white stone statue of Otto von Bismarck. When we reached it, we were looking across an active basketball court at Otto’s back. We had just another block or so to the museum, and Natasha was happy to spot berries growing wild at the side of the road.
Museum for Hamburg History
It is no mistake that the Museum for Hamburg History appears just east of a ravine; it was constructed atop the 17th century Henricus Bastion, part of the western wall protecting Hamburg from attack. The museum is run by the city, rather than the nation, and that makes it quite similar in role and administration to the Carnavalet Museum in Paris. The current structure was purpose-built for the museum (founded 1908), with construction spanning 1914-1922. You might imagine that other challenges were besetting Germany during this period of construction. I particularly like that the building incorporates elements saved from much older buildings that were destroyed or replaced in the period before it existed, some remaining from homes that were built in the sixteenth century!
From looking at a map, it might not be obvious that Hamburg is a marine city, but the Elbe River widens to an estuary (mixing area for salt and fresh water) just west of the city. As a bit of shorthand, we can find the boundary where an estuary becomes a river by asking where it was possible to build a bridge with medieval technology. For the Elbe River, that boundary is Hamburg. We often think of pirates as being special to the Caribbean Sea, but Hamburg was apparently the haunt of a great many medieval and early modern pirates. The museum exhibits a few skulls from that period, because the penalty for being a pirate was to have your skull nailed to the pier! The original dock area of Hamburg was relatively compact, but a light-show connected with a model of the docks illustrates just how much this harbor has been expanded over time, particularly as Hamburg became a key shipbuilding area during the World Wars. If you are a fan of miniatures, I would definitely say do not miss this museum, because it features them everywhere, particularly on its top floor display of a massive model train network.
I think many contemporary visitors to the museum will be a bit confused by a prominent seventeenth-century model of the Solomon’s Temple; it essentially gets a room by itself due to its size! In 1604, Juan Bautista Villalpando wrote a commentary on Ezekiel’s vision, trying to develop a fully-realized schematic for the Temple. For some architects of the period, Solomon’s Temple was considered the apogee of earthly design and as the reflection of the celestial temple. In 1680-1692, Gerhard Schott commissioned a scale model to be constructed in wood, lead, silver, leather, and gilt. It fascinates me that so much effort went into the realization of this model starting from fewer than 100 verses drawn from a book of the Old Testament!
The city history museum is well worth the time for a visit. I found it a little hard to stitch all its material into a single timeline in my my mind. I would find it difficult, for example, to answer a question like, “what events marked the biggest turning points in Hamburger history?” A question that frequently bothers me is, “why did the principalities, baronies, and free cities of Germany coalesce into a single nation relatively slowly?” I am not sure how to answer that even now.
It is worth noting that the marked pathways in the museum anticipate that each visitor will follow a single path through all the displays of the museum. Because Natasha and I were skipping past some sections, we frequently found ourselves having to pass through doors that had been marked with “do not enter” signs since the museum wanted us to follow their prescribed route.
I have frequently explored topics in Jewish history on the blog, and I would say that the exhibits on the Jewish community of Hamburg were worth a look. Natasha and I spent a while exploring that area when I came across this sentence in an area with a schoolroom exhibit: “On June 30th, 1942 all teaching of Jewish schoolchildren was prohibited and those few Jewish pupils and teachers still living in Hamburg were almost all deported and put to death.” I don’t know what about that matter-of-fact statement affected me so much, but I had to sit down for a while. We humans must learn some lessons from our past to avoid destroying ourselves.
Our museum visit had come to an end, and it was time for lunch! Natasha is a friend of phở, and she realized we were only a couple of blocks from a Vietnamese fusion restaurant called “Nom.” We had almost reached it when we stumbled upon the Anglican Church of Thomas à Becket— just as the Museum had reported, the church had few external features that announced it as a church, though more recently a gold cross had been emblazoned on its facade. The Vietnamese food was excellent, by the way. I had the chicken coconut curry soup and a jasmine tea. They really hit the spot!
St. Michael’s Church
Since we were just a couple of blocks away from it, we decided to visit St. Michael’s Church. We did not brave the line to enter, but we did pause for a photo or two. An epic statue of St. Michael braining a demon stands above the main portal; it’s a particularly lurid design. Much more modestly, Martin Luther stands around the corner, facing a parking lot. At least, I think of him as more modest; the statue had him looking rather pompous!
Natasha and I descended once more to the waterfront. We followed a shaded path through the Michelwiese. Halfway down, we had quite a surprise when we encountered a statuesque head carved from stone, dubbed “Angelito,” that was brought here from Easter Island in 1999 (the image appears at the top of this blog post).
With only a little more walking, we had returned to the Elbe Waterfront. I paused for a photograph of the symphony hall, built with many delays and added expense atop a building at the west end of an island in the river.
Natasha and I walked along the waterfront toward the west. The sidewalk had become far more crowded by the early afternoon. We tried to merge with the traffic, but we had plenty of stops and starts as people sped up, slowed down, ducked in and out, or pushed bikes and strollers into the mix.
Rather suddenly, a cacophony broke loose on the road running alongside the jetty. A parade of decorated cars, flanked by police cars, protested the infringements of basic rights, perhaps agitated by enforced mask wearing or vaccine pressures from the government. For my part, I would really like it if people would follow public health guidance so this plague can finally end.
Another few steps forward, we encountered another protest, this time by vegans. I felt at least a bit sympathetic to their cause. What drew my eye, though, was that a protester was dressed in a shark onesie. Where do I sign to get my shark onesie?
At long last, our feet brought us to the grand, round entrance hallway of the Alter Elbtunnel. The Old Elbe Tunnel was constructed during 1907-1911 to connect the St. Pauli waterfront to the Steinwerder shipyards. Today Hamburgers can use it any time of day to traverse the Elbe by bicycle or foot. Natasha and I opted to descend to the level of the tunnel by the stairs since it seemed a great press of people were using the large and small elevators. I don’t think we realized just how far down those stairs ran…
The tunnel itself was not so different than one might expect, with tiled walls, a bike pathway down the middle, and pedestrian sidewalks on either side. If motor-powered traffic had ever been used for moving cargo this way, there’s little sign of it today. The massive elevator that drew us back up to ground level, though, was rated to handle 10,000 kg / 130 people!
Since the tunnel was a bit claustrophobic, we thought we might take a ferry back across. We found the ticket machine at the landing, but it insisted on our paying the 6.80 euro in coins rather than card or notes. We didn’t have enough change in hand, so we trudged back toward the tunnel. Our return walk was less enthusiastic than our first pass. With our feet sending messages of unhappiness, we returned to the Landungsbrucken station. The ticket machines, however, had become quite uncooperative, arguing against my using a French bank card and then refusing to recognize my euro notes. Natasha and I piled in all of our change to acquire our tickets, and in no time flat we were back at Berliner Tor.