January 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic is still very present, as are coronavirus countermeasures. Museums are open though. So I found it appropriate to visit the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp. The subjects? The Red Star Line, migration and emigration, travel and hygiene and diseases. Topical, don’t you think?
The museum portrays their journey of being transported by the shipping company and leaving the city and harbour. The stories of the passengers are the main element of the exhibition.
The era in which the exodus took place is shown in a broad social context. Migration and human mobility have always existed: millions of people all over the world left (and continue to leave) the familiar behind, looking for a new future.
But the focus obviously is the some fifty years of RSL operations. From their departure from their country of origin, through the long journey and their temporary stay in Antwerp, to the crossing and arrival in their new homeland.
A long journey
The odyssey from the old to the new world is divided into stages. In the Antwerp story the museum presents the city and its harbour, the old and new Eilandje neighbourhood and Antwerp as the last stop (on the way to America).
The Belgian component is about emigrants who fled poverty or persecution, or were looking for adventure, and boarded the Red Star Line steamers. They were full of hope for a new and better life overseas.
The Red Star Line Museum also tells an American story, in which the ancestors of contemporary Americans play a leading role. It’s about their origin and their destination.
It’s not the first time I visited the museum, but the panels and information concerning hygiene and disease control before and during travel felt very poignant.
The real fear for epidemics and contagion in general has returned in a large scale.
The American Dream
Finally, there is the story about dreams of a better life, about saying goodbye, discovering the unknown and the search for a new home.
Six star witnesses are central to the story. Some of them are still alive, for others the well-documented story is told by a descendant. The stories include Albert Einstein who is one of those icons of the rich Red Star Line history. Other passengers might be less famous but they are not less interesting: Sonia Fuentes, Irène Bobelijn, Maurice and Ita Moel, the Hutlet family, and Adolf Verhalle.
Elsewhere in the exhibit, the story of Irving Berlin, né Israel Isidore Beilin, another iconic passenger on the Red Star Line, gets full attention.
At the end of this experience-oriented, richly documented path, you return to current events. In one installation you can view and listen to contemporary migration stories. At the last stop, before leaving the museum, visitors are drawn into a video installation created by Hans Op de Beeck.
Don’t forget to climb up the viewing tower, with wonderful vistas over the Scheldt and the city.
Temporary exhibition: ‘Destination Sweetheart’
Migrants of love leave their homes, family and friends to build a future with their loved one. ‘Destination Sweetheart‘ is an exhibition about migrating for love from the Red Star Line period to the present day. Letters, interviews and personal objects offer insight into heart-warming stories, as well confrontational ones.
Sailor René jumps on his Vespa in 1958 to ask for the hand of the Italian Silvana after only several meetings. She leaves her country behind for him. In 1993, Fati meets Peter, who works as a teacher in her home country Burkina Faso, and she follows him to Belgium. And Anna went to Roger in America by a Red Star Line ship, convinced by his written marriage proposal.
Love is no tourism
In coronavirus countermeasures times, leisure travel is sometimes forbidden. A major setback for transnational amorous relationships. “Love is no tourism” has been a slogan for people wanting to see their loved one(s).
Migrating for love and family reunification have been the main reasons for legal migration to Belgium in the past fifty years. Internet, cheap plane tickets, tourism and foreign studies play an important role.
On the other hand, more and more checks are being carried out on marriages of convenience, and therefore the authenticity of relationships. In the expo, you will also be able to enjoy the catchy installation ‘Between us and everybody else’ by artists Kim Snauwaert and Anyuta Wiazemsky Snauwaert from Bulgaria, who ask questions about privacy, intimacy, marriage and the state.
Whether it’s about moving to an Erasmus love, a casual meeting on a trip that becomes more, or a proposed marriage to someone outside their home country, migrating for love comes in all shapes and sizes. Discover what it means to go to the end of the world for love in ‘Destination Sweetheart’.
The RSL Museum is an elaborate museum on migration. Allow one to three hours.
Art and museums in Antwerp
- 2022 in the museums of Antwerp.
- ANTWERP | ‘Stories of refuge’ exhibition at Red Star Line Museum.
- ANTWERP | Inside Rubens House.
- ModeMuseum MoMu – Fashion Museum Antwerp 2021.
- ‘Freight’ and ‘Listen’ exhibitions at MAS in Antwerp.
- ‘Masculinities: Liberation through Photography’ exhibition at FOMU, Antwerp’s photography museum.
- Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp.
- ‘Eurasia – A Landscape of Mutability’ exhibition at Antwerp’s M HKA modern arts museum.
- ANTWERP | Geert De Weyer Gallery, a space for illustrators’ and comic strip authors’ art.
- ‘Congoville’: contemporary artists walk colonial paths at Middelheim Museum in Antwerp.
- Antwerp’s Letterenhuis ft. Paul van Ostaijen exhibition.
- ModeMuseum MoMu – Fashion Museum Antwerp reopens on 4 and 5 September 2021 with ‘Fashion 2.021 Antwerp – Fashion/Conscious’.
- Museum Plantin-Moretus will exhibit long-lost illustration by Rubens: ‘Opticorum Libri Sex’.
- Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Antwerp finally to reopen on 25 September 2022.
- ‘100 X Congo’ exhibition at Museum Aan de Stroom (MAS) in Antwerp.
- ‘Cool Japan’ exhibition, Museum Aan de Stroom (MAS), Antwerp, 18 October 2019 to 19 April 2020.
- ANTWERP | Museum Vleeshuis up for restoration.
- REVIEW | ‘Cool Japan’ exhibition at Museum Aan de Stroom (MAS) in Antwerp from 18 October 2019 to 19 April 2020.
- BOOK | ‘Antwerp. An Archaeological View on the Origin of the City’ by Tim Bellens.
- ‘On the road’ at Museum Plantin-Moretus.
- Red Star Line Museum.
- Paleis op de Meir.
- Museum Mayer van den Bergh.
- DIVA, Antwerp Home of Diamonds.