Sailing through history at Hamburg’s International Maritime Museum

Hamburg, while technically a port city, is about 100 kilometers from the open sea. The river Elbe is its vital connection to the North Sea, a main thoroughfare for ships for trade and leisure. Hamburg brands itself as das Tor zur Welt (“the gate to the world”), a reminder of its heydays as a major player in the Hanseatic League.

It is hence no surprise that a museum was built in dedication to its maritime tradition. The International Maritime Museum is located in Hamburg’s HafenCity district, an area undergoing intensive redevelopment. The museum, in particular, was known as the Kaispeicher B (quay warehouse B), the oldest warehouse in the district. After the refurbishment of the warehouse between 2005 and 2008, a total of nine stories (or decks, as they aptly referred to it on floor plans) now hold all things nautical, yet still preserving its Hanseatic character inside and out. Exposed foundation of timber and steel and red-bricks laid in neo-gothic style, much like most of the buildings in the district, are still apparent. The only deviation, perhaps, is the floor laden with planks that mimics the interior of wooden boats.

Each deck is organized into different themes. I spent a good hour on the first deck which featured ancient and European Old World expeditions. Other decks feature naval history during the second world war, paintings that portray the nautical life, and pre-GPS navigation instruments like sextants and spherical compasses. A huge model of the cruise ship Queen Mary 2 that is entirely made of Lego, has joined the collection. The day I visited, paintings- of ships, of course- were being installed for an exhibit, a program the museum usually holds.

The museum ties the past to the present. Contemporary trading techniques such as container logistics, have found their way in, yet environmentally salient topics, such as renewable energy and climate change are also not left behind. Unlimited energy that can be harnessed in open seas by wind turbines. Ship voyages are dependent on meteorology, and whose prediction is a key determinant of climate change.

The public has seen some of this collection much earlier, though. It used to be housed in one of the mansions westward of the city along the Elbchausee. The current maritime memorabilia, which now have a few more addition, are located at an accessible place. But it comes at a price of 10 Euros. The steep admission fee is perhaps imposed to recoup the expenses for the refurbishment of the building, on which the city government plunked down €30 million.

If there is someone proud of this government grant, it is Professor Peter Tamm. He, after all, practically owns most of the collection that has now found a new home. Tamm put up a foundation to curate the collection, and serve as a conduit for donations. Tam’s collection began with a ship model his mother gave him for his sixth birthday. Since then, the fleets of miniature ship have grown to about 23,000. They are neatly arranged in endless rows and levels, and occupy most of the 8th deck. They were organized in such manner to impress; looking at each one of them is impractical. A few steps back from the display cabinet turns it into a sci-fi-like depository of ammunition and artillery.

The water vessels on display vary in dimension, from those the size of a thumb to an actual boat. Either way, a model is first created based on arduous research, especially for ancient ship and boats. The accurate scale representation of these miniature models has enabled the craft to adopt standards. By doing so, different types of ship models coming from different places are still comparable in size when put side by side. The small models are a striking replica of the original be it the grooves and bumps on the stack of a steam boat or to the more obvious like its color.

At one point, model ships were also carved out from ivory, but they now come rare, and most likely even illegal.

The mid-sized models are a test and testament of craftsmanship and manual dexterity. While their smaller counterpart are cast and formed as a single piece, bigger models are a result of careful study of photos, and perhaps even blue prints if they were available. Individual parts are practically made from scratch, which are then nailed or glued one after another to eventually form the ship. Fine metal wires resemble high-tension cables that further loop on pulleys on an industrial ship model. The hull of an ancient ship tapers and terminates on a sharp upward curvature much like a beak of a bird, which seems to show an advanced adeptness for air and fluid dynamics hundreds of years ago. With the craft’s level of exactness and intricacy, it won’t be surprising if its mechanism would work if the sails were drawn.

To cover and fully appreciate the museum, visitors need to take their time, and by this I mean at least four hours. You may need to stay longer if you have a closer affinity to ships, sailors, and the sea.

The International Maritime Museum, both the building and its contents, is a sturdy reminder of its Hanseatic roots. Hamburg and its port have become attractive not only to ships, but also planes. Airbus is now taking camp in Finkenwerder, one of the quarters in Hamburg-Mitte. Moreover, the thriving IT and media hub is a telling sign of its successful transformation into a post-industrial city and entry into the knowledge economy. This bode well to the future of the city, and the valuable model ships, which have found a safe dry dock.



  1. Has the SS Peking arrived yet if not can you tell the date and time you expect her thank you


  2. I have written twice requesting a copy of the contrruction plans of the 1902 Preuben sailing ship. Is there a problen with getting the construction plans?? My second written request by Federal Express Office cost $56.62 USD; but No r.s.v.p. has been received. Please help? The Federal Express document was signed by -REINEWARDT.


    1. I think you’d need a weekend pass for you next visit. I think I spent 4 hours in the museum. i had to skim through the upper levels because i was already getting hungry!


    1. Hello Nikki!

      I wanted to email you about it but I trust your RSS feeds! Just a very minor correction, the third and fourth paragraphs need a space in between them.
      Otherwise, thanks for re-posting!


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