Antwerp's New Migration Museum, Plus 4 Others Around the World

by  Karen Gardiner | Sep 26, 2013
Ellis Island
Ellis Island / TomasSereda/iStock

Between 1873 and 1935 the Red Star Line shipping company transported more than two million European migrants from Antwerp, Belgium to new lives in the "New World" of the United States and Canada. The shipping line's former warehouses, which stood empty and decaying (and slated to be turned into apartments) since the line ceased operations, will reopen as a museum on September 28th.  Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners, the architectural firm behind the renovation and preservation of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and Grand Central Terminal, were responsible for the warehouses' restoration.

The museum will likely draw many American visitors who will be able to research their ancestry and see the very place, in a warehouse at the port of Antwerp, where their ancestors embarked on these life-changing journeys. Also of interest will be the stories of the famous passengers who left Europe on the Red Star Line, such as Irving Berlin, whose family loaned his transposing piano to the museum, and Albert Einstein who, as he fled Nazi persecution, wrote a letter on Red Star Line stationery announcing his resignation from the Prussian Academy of Sciences -- also on loan to the museum.

The museum's slogan is "People on the Move," drawing attention to the fact that "migration is a universal phenomenon" and links the experience of the Red Star Line's passengers with that of contemporary migrants. Interactive exhibits will attempt to simulate the experience of immigration, including a visit to, first, a Warsaw travel agency and finally an intake center in New York City or Philadelphia.

Here are some other migration museums around the world where you can trace your heritage...

Ellis Island, New York

Ellis Island was the arrival point for many of the Red Star Line's passengers. Between 1892 and 1954, more than 12 million migrants passed through the doors of the Ellis Island immigration center, which included a registration hall, a medical room and a prison.  A museum now occupies the immigration center's main building. Visitors can take a guided or audio tour around the museum's exhibits and search for their ancestors through the museum's free search system.

Note: Following 2012's Hurricane Sandy, the Ellis Island Museum is currently closed. Check the National Park Service's page for updates. While the museum is closed, we recommend the Tenement Museum in Manhattan, which is housed in an apartment building that was home to nearly 7,000 newly arrived, working class immigrants.

Cobh Heritage Centre, County Cork, Ireland

Attached to the town's railway station and a two-minute walk from Cobh Pier, Cobh Heritage Centre is in a location appropriate for telling the story of Ireland's mass emigration. The museum also informs visitors about life in Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Great Famine, and the transportation of criminals to the then penal colony of Australia. Cobh (which was then called Queenstown) was also the final port of call for the RMS Titanic, and the museum has an exhibit on the history of the ill-fated ship.

Immigration Museum, Melbourne, Australia

The Immigration Museum is located in Melbourne's Old Customs House, point of arrival for many of Australia's 19th-century immigrants.  Stories of people from all over the world who settled in Victoria in the 1800's are brought to life through moving images, memorabilia, and interactive installations. Other exhibits highlight issues of Australian identity, cultural diversity, indigenous peoples, and the legacy of colonialism.

Musée de l'histoire de l'immigration, Paris, France

France's first immigration museum opened in 2007 without ceremony and amid political controversy -- President Sarzoky, who was in the midst of drafting a tough new immigration law at the time, did not show up for the inauguration.

The museum was founded by retired soccer player Zaïr Kedadouche (whose former club, Red Star F.C. was named after the shipping line) and features artwork, multimedia installations, and archives to tell the history of immigration to France, and of such notable immigrants as Marie Curie, Frédéric Chopin, and Zinedine Zidane.

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