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ææ a “lieu de mémoire”

The first point of strength of the Red Star Line Museum is its location. The fact of being located inside the original premises of the company is a powerful story in itself. Despite the long abandonment, the warehouses could be renewed through a delicate consolidation and restoration process, and are in themselves a lieu de mémoire. Still, compared to other European experiences, it seems that the museological choice will not offer an immersive experience in the past “as it was” (or “might have been”)— notwithstanding the fact that historical and personal experience is always important in the overall narrative—but rather to build continuous bridges between past and present, local and global.

The museum deals with migration from 19th century up until today, and interprets the history of the company as a malleable example of the universal history of migration from pre-history to today. The museum’s concept is very clear: quoting Eric Vanhaute “the intention is to present an image of long-distance migration as a social process. The process occurs at the crossroads of movements, from the individual story through local experience, the passage itself (transport), international and intercontinental contacts, all the way through to global relations. Thus, it covers human choices, external challenges and threats, transport and movements, new settlements, hospitality and exclusion” (quoted in Nauwelaerts 2008, 18). The vision is that local history is told through a universal prism—that of mobility as the core of human nature. Still, if mobility is a universal and ever-extant dimension, migration and travel change through time. The exhibition will then focus on these changes. At the very beginning of the main exhibition, a short introduction is offered through a picture of 3rd class passengers in the buildings—taken exactly in the place where the visitor stands. After a brief text about the company and the buildings, the discourse will open up through a monumental globe—where 360° screens will broadcast a film loop focusing on the universal

but also personal experience that people have with mobility, through both historical and contemporary footage—and a timeline, where twenty individuals will represent different moments in history going from prehistory to today. The attempt here is to reverse the “classical” theory that sees settling down as an arrival point in the history of humankind, and to show how mobility has represented a great propulsive force.

Passing the nearby building, we dive into the “historical story,” finding out what happened to the passengers travelling on Red Star Line ships. While the chronological approach is quite “classical”—from departure to arrival—, the attempt here is to bring history to life through a number of thematic stages. The journey starts in Eastern Europe—only about 10% of the people leaving from Antwerp were Belgians—and through its development some themes are investigated, such as marketing networks, the “push and pull” factors, the voyage by train to Antwerp, transmigration through the city—how it looked to migrants and how they saw it—, controls in the building, the departure, the voyage on the ship—the division into classes, social rules…—, the arrival at Ellis Island, the attachment to one’s roots represented by the ethnic press and other documents, and so on. Recourse to multimedia is very important in the overall exhibition design.

At the end of this journey there will be two art installations, one with contemporary testimonies of people living in Antwerp linked to important symbolic places in the city, and another one showing 800 people invited to represent the “basic” human experiences linked to migration—such as fear of control, saying goodbye etc. The museum does not have a space dedicated exclusively to educational activities (though an empty room beneath the tower could be used for that purpose in the future), but the choice is to hire cultural mediators able to compare their personal migrant experiences, through storytelling, with the ones narrated in the museum. The outreach activities developed through time


European Museums in the 21st Century: Setting the Framework - Vol. 2  

This book grew out of the earliest work of the MeLa Research Field 6, “Envisioning 21st Century Museums,” aimed at exploring current trends...

European Museums in the 21st Century: Setting the Framework - Vol. 2  

This book grew out of the earliest work of the MeLa Research Field 6, “Envisioning 21st Century Museums,” aimed at exploring current trends...