A large new maritime history museum opens this week in Germany’s principal seaport, Hamburg. It adds to a growing collection of seafaring tourist attractions on the city’s waterfront.
A millionaire collector of model ships, Peter Tamm, 80, created the museum in a refurbished 10-story brick warehouse, the oldest surviving port-storage building in the city’s old docklands.
Tamm’s collection of 1,000 model ships, 5,000 marine paintings and 60 naval uniforms illustrates the race for technological and military supremacy on and under the sea.
German President Horst Koehler inaugurated the International Maritime Museum on Wednesday, June 25, with the public opening taking place the next day.
In Hamburg, seafaring and the docks have always been the focus of local identity. Tours of the canals and huge port are a big attraction. Tourists can visit two preserved ships, an 1896 sailing ship and a 1961 freighter.
Dozens of smaller historic ships can be admired from quaysides. The city already has museums of emigration and ship loading and unloading. Another museum, currently closed for renovation, tells the history of the customs service. Tamm’s model and document collection adds a new aspect.
It all started with a model boat
This week, Tamm showed reporters the first 1:1250-scale model he had acquired as a boy and joked, “I made a mistake: I started collecting and could not stop.”
Initially it was just the miniature models, which are the size of a finger and were once used in naval training. The Tamm collection now has 36,000 of them, including donations from other collectors. The smallest is 5 millimeters long (0.2 inches) and represents a dinghy.
Tamm expanded his collecting to include 1,000 bigger, naval-architecture models, many one meter (3.3 feet) or longer, and models in ivory and gold. Later he even acquired full-scale vessels including a couple of tiny submarines.
Model ships from pig bones
Visitors climb through the nine decks of displays, which are organized by theme, such as exploration or the age of sailing. Tamm’s interest in the history of naval warfare, which occupies one of the nine decks, has been criticized by some German pacifists.
Among the most unusual models in the glass cases are small ships made from pig and chicken bones by Napoleonic sailors locked up in English prisoner ships. The pastime helped them to survive their confinement.
Tamm has also collected 15,000 menus from ships’ restaurants and naval medals which are mainly likely to appeal to fellow enthusiasts.
Kid-friendly but no hands-on
While the private museum has made an effort to appeal to children, for example by displaying a seven-meter model of the Queen Mary II cruise ship made of nearly a million Legos, there are no 21st-century-style, interactive displays.
A children’s workshop caters to school pupils, but there are no hands-on experiences for adult visitors. An educational display on the five main shapes of sail — square, lateen, lug, gaff and stay — is static, with neither wind pushing the sails nor any visitor-operated tackle to haul them up and down.
“We could have filled the place with computer consoles, but we wanted to take the building seriously and the collector seriously,” said the exhibition designer, Holger von Neuhoff, speaking at Tamm’s side.
Tamm, who began his working life as a shipping reporter and rose to chief executive of Germany’s Springer newspaper group before retiring, has kept tight control over the private museum.
Museum uniquely comprehensive
The project was granted a 99-year, zero-rent lease of an 1878 building from the city and received a 30-million-euro ($47-million) municipal start-up grant to pay for refurbishing.
“It will require 150,000 paying visitors per year to break even financially,” he said.
“This is the only museum in the world that embraces all maritime history from the beginning to the present day,” he added. “All the others are focused on a particular nation or a particular topic.”
Outside, cranes and pile-drivers are at work building vast new office and apartment blocks for Hamburg’s Hafen City, one of the world’s major dockland redevelopment schemes.