How Antwerp Gave the World the world “White Christmas”

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“Jullie zijn de derrrrrrrrde passagiers,” our museum guide Inez says enthusiastically rolling her “r’s” for emphasis. Today for our last day of our social orientation class we are taking a field trip to Antwerp’s newest museum The Red Star Line museum.

To say that this two-story museum is about the company that over two million people used to sail from Europe to America isn’t quite accurate. You do learn about what the ships were like and the different travel booking stations owned by the company all around Europe. But what this museum really focuses on are the people who passed through these halls and their experiences with the Red Star Line.  

We walk through the museum as if we are Third Class passengers about to board a Red Star Line ship. Not only are there several panels of personal stories for us to read, but also videos of former travels retelling their experience on the ship and in America. There was a Belgian girl who traveled on the Red Star Line alone to meet her parents in Indiana, only to reluctantly return back to Belgium two years later after the Great Depression hit the US. We get to sit packed on the “train” we might have taken to get to Antwerp and see cut in half models of ships so that you can see inside and there is one room fashioned like a ship’s deck, complete with video screens showing an ocean view.

Isreal Isidore Baline became known as Irving Berlin, composers of many beloved classics like “White Christmas” and “Annie Get Your Gun”

The museum is also very proud of its inclusion of famous historical figures, such as Albert Einstein and the man wrote the score for “White Christmas” Irving Berlin. They even have one of Irving Berlin’s personal pianos on display.

The personal nature of the museum and the fact that it encourages you to interact with the information are the its greatest strengths. There’s a section where you can smell what the disinfectant that you would have been washed with would have smelled like and you can get a taste of the kind of mental puzzles the doctor’s might have had you do during your medical exam.

However, it’s at the very end of our tour that I come across one exhibition that resonates with me in an unexpected way. Just before the exit there is a small white table with four personal tablets where you can watch videos of immigrants currently in Antwerp and watch them tell their stories, in their mother tongue. You can listen to a woman from Congo explain that the reason she stays in Antwerp is because her husband is buried or listen to two turkish children talking about adjusting to a school and new language. There are all sorts of stories that affect me in ways I can’t quite explain.

If you have visited Elis Island in New York as I have, the historical information you find here might not be new to you. But the personal nature and experience in the Red Star Line museum make it a museum definitely worth visiting.

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The caption reads: “At length we came into sight of the green-grey statue of Liberty, far away and diminutive at first but later on, a celestial figure in a blaze of sunlight…some migrants were disposed to cheer, some shed silent tears. Many, however, did not know what the statue was. I heard one Russian telling another that it was the tombstone of Columbus.”

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