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Thursday, 14 March 2013 10:55

Aboard Antwerp’s New Red Star Line Museum

Written by  Monique Burns

Antwerp residents call their hometown “’t stadt,” or simply, “the city.” Never mind that Brussels, Belgium’s capital and largest city, is only 35 minutes south by train. Or that Ghent, itself a major cultural center, lies 45 minutes southwest. Never mind that London and Paris are less than two hours west by high-speed rail. Antwerpers see their city as the center of the universe - and with good reason. 

Since the 12th century, Antwerp, in the northwestern province of Flanders, has been a world trade and transportation hub. It’s the international diamond capital through which 80 percent of all raw diamonds pass. It’s a city of art, from the great 17th-century Flemish painters Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck to modernists like Luc Tuymans. It’s a literary hub, too - birthplace of the world’s first newspaper and first commercial printing plant, and UNESCO’s 2004 World Book Capital. Antwerp is also a fashion center, home of the legendary Antwerp Six, whose avant-garde designs first electrified London catwalks in 1986. It’s a culinary capital, too, where solid Flemish dishes and Belgian-French gastronomy, along with crisp fries and local brewed beers, merge with African, Arab, Indian and other world cuisines.

With the September 27, 2013 opening of the Red Star Line I People on the Move Museum, Antwerpers will have yet another reason to be proud. The new museum highlights the city’s greatest asset - its port ( Europe’s largest steel and petroleum port, and the Continent’s second-largest port after Rotterdam, Antwerp has been an economic powerhouse for almost five centuries. But the new Red Star Line Museum focuses less on the port’s role as a revenue stream and more on its role as a conduit for human capital. 

Between 1872 and 1938, Red Star Line ships brought more than two million European immigrants to New York, Philadelphia and other U.S. ports. At the migration’s height, two “Star Boats” sailed from Antwerp each week carrying 1,000-1,500 immigrants, many Eastern European Jews. Through vintage photographs and film footage, striking Belle Epoque posters and oil paintings, poignant letters and personal accounts, and even ship models, menus and tableware, the Red Star Line Museum tells these immigrants’ poignant stories. 

The new museum is one of the latest revitalization projects in Het Eilandje, or “The Island,” a trendy docklands district just north of the city’s historic center. In May 2011, the MAS, or Museum aan de Stroom (, opened where the Hanseatic League’s imposing warehouse once stood and where today outdoor cafes and summer bars surround yacht-filled Willemdok and Bonapartedok (which Napoleon himself ordered to be built). With a 360-degree observation deck overlooking the River Scheldt, the 200-foot-high museum tower is made from red stone imported from India and decorated with 3,000 steel hands, Antwerp’s traditional symbol. Inside, the MAS documents city and port life through fascinating objects as disparate as an Egyptian mummy and an early Antwerp-built automobile. 

Steps away from the MAS, in ‘t Eilandje’s Montevideo neighborhood, the new Red Star Line Museum was designed by renowned New York architects Beyer, Blinder & Belle in association with Belgian agency Arcade. In a happy coincidence, BB&B’s portfolio also includes New York’s Ellis Island Immigration Museum where many Red Star Line passengers landed. The company’s three large wooden sheds on the Rijnkaai - where immigrants underwent health exams, document checks and delousing - is being renovated. Rising among them, high above the River Scheldt, is a new open-air observation tower, ramped and shaped like a ship’s funnel to evoke the image of immigrants climbing the gangplanks. In the New World’s most democratic spirit, the tower will be open to all free of charge.

City officials hope the new museum will forge a deep connection between the people and places of yesteryear and today. Certainly, visitors will recognize stories of well-known immigrants like Albert Einstein, who fled the Nazi holocaust aboard the Red Star Line’s Westernland. Or of the young girl who left the Ukraine and would later become Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Dance impresario Arthur Murray and a young Irving Beilin also arrived on New World shores aboard the Red Star Line. Years later, after Beilin became celebrated composer Irving Berlin, it’s believed Red Star Line first-class passengers listened to his melodies. Thankfully for the American film industry, Fred Astaire’s father also boarded a Red Star Line ship for the United States. 

For many Americans, the bond with these immigrants will be even more intimate. It’s estimated that about 30 million Americans have relatives who sailed aboard the Red Star Line from Europe to America. Gazing at a sepia-toned photo of young Russian women in babushkas, visitors might recognize, literally or figuratively, the faces of their great-grandmothers. Watching a black-and-white film clip of German laborers climbing the gangplank of the Belgenland II, some might recall tales great-uncles told of their grand adventure steaming to the New World from the busy port of Antwerp. Seeing an old ship’s advertisement in Hebrew might remind others of ancestors from Russia, Austria-Hungary and other corners of Eastern Europe who escaped Old World prejudice and pogroms to help build a more open society in the New World. 


Visiting the Red Star Line Museum and ‘t Eilandje

Admission: Red Star Line I People on the Move Museum is at Montevideostraat 3 in Antwerp’s ‘t Eilandje district. Admission is $9.75; free admission with the Antwerp Card, available at tourist desks in Central Station and the Grote Markt. 

Restaurants: On the top floor of the MAS, one of Antwerp’s finest restaurants is ‘t Zilte ( where Chef Viki Geunes recently earned his second Michelin star for innovative “urban gastronomy.” North of the Bonapartedok, at the northwest edge of Kattendijkdok, Het Pomphuis ( serves elegant fare in a cavernous Art Nouveau-style building once used to pump water from dry-docked ships (including those of the Red Star Line). For traditional brasserie fare, try Aux Vieux Port ( on Napelsstraat 130, on the Willemdok’s northeast edge. 

Hotels: Most top Antwerp hotels are in the center city (see main article). In ‘t Eilandje, two three-star choices are 38-room Best Western Docklands Hotel ( with spacious contemporary rooms starting at $140, and 140-room Holiday Inn Express Antwerp (, close to the city’s R1 Ring Road, with comfortable blue-and-beige rooms starting
at $128. 

For more information, contact


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