One of Hamburg’s most fascinating museums is a must for history buffs, maritime fans and anyone loving this city. It houses both international exhibits and showcases Hamburg’s prominent link to maritime history in Europe and the world.
I had been meaning to go for a while and found myself making my way there one Sunday morning. The trip there holds a certain amount of excitement in itself, as one of the possible routes takes you to Überseequartier, a cavernous, gleaming station inlaid with blue (immediately reminiscent of all those sea-inspired vibes) and part of Hamburg’s most recently completed subway line, the U4. Getting out, you’ll see ongoing construction in the still new HafenCity district, and then a few minutes walk will take you to the museum iteself.
The International Maritime Museum is located in Hamburg’s oldest warehouse, Kaispeicher B. 10 floors, or “docks” filled with an enormous scope of sailing and ship-building artefacts, sketching out voyages across the world, the development of navigation, battles taking place at sea and the expansion of modern passenger sea travel await discovery.
One of my favourite sections included an outline of the history of lighthouses – it turns out the first ones were built in ancient Egypt. A detailed, intricate model of one of Germany’s most famous lighthouses called Roter Sand accompanied the exhibit, giving a glimpse in to the inside of the structure.
I spent several minutes staring at a model of the cruise liner the Queen Mary 2, built out of Lego. It took six months and roughly one million Lego pieces to put it together.
Models of ships from various centuries hung suspended from the ceiling, some against a background painting of the sea, like that of Wapen von Hamburg (III) from 1722. She sailed from Hamburg, accompanying merchant ships solely for protecting them against pirate attacks. Staring at it, it was easy to forget the strings holding up the model and to imagine her sailing in front of you for real.
This was the only foggy morning we experienced in Oslo. Two groups of children got on the same bus as we did, clearly also on their way to the museum island of Bygdøy (a friend told me how to pronounce this correctly, but unfortunately I keep switching to the German way of doing it in my head, which is funny, considering the name contains a letter the German alphabet does not have).
One group consisted of small schoolchildren from Germany, and the other of still smaller Norwegian ones in neon orange vests. The latter simply sat down on the floor of the bus and I amused myself for a while imagining reactions of fellow passengers if this happened in Deutschland. Possibly “Die Kinder dürfen nicht auf dem Boden sitzen.” One little girl boarded the bus in colourful sunglasses and didn’t take them off for most of the trip. Norwegian cool! Apparently it starts from an early age.
The bus number 30 stops in front of every attraction on Bygdøy – another very satisfying transport experience in Oslo for me. My guidebook also told me I could not get lost, as there were signs everywhere, which is true, also no one acts like they can get lost, and as we all know, the right mindset is everything.
Our first stop was the Kon-Tiki Museum, which I expected to be small and done in a quick tour. Was I ever wrong. A fascinating story opened up to me and I was wondering whether I had really missed this, or simply forgotten. The extraordinary account of Thor Heyerdahl’s trip across the Pacific Ocean on the Kon-Tiki raft in 1947 is constructed in a comprehensive exhibit built around the raft itself. Video and audio plays in the background, additionally animating the story.
The museum also shows artefacts from other daredevil expeditions that Heyerdahl undertook, as well as models of his other (!) rafts. What struck me especially is how much writing he did, not just for scientific purposes, both on his expeditions and between them. After seeing the suggestively realistic underwater exhibit cleverly connected to the raft above, and walking half-bent through a reconstruction of a cave (warning, yes, it is on the narrower side), I immediately bought the book about the Kon-Tiki expedition in the museum shop (generally good stops in the Oslo shopping plan. Psychedelic colouring pencils in the Munch Museum, anyone?).
I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that several men had actually slept, worked and sailed on this thing in the middle of the PACIFIC OCEAN. On a RAFT. As well as that so many people told Heyerdahl he would never, ever be able to do it…and he did.
Inspired and curious after this first fascinating tale, we proceeded to the next museum bearing evidence to more mind-blowingly daring things done by Norwegian explorers – the Fram. By the roof you can tell the building houses a ship. Inside we end up walking downstairs first and watching a bit of the running documentary about the polar expedition made by Roald Amundsen (memories of geography lessons in school start to stir) between 1903 and 1906, aboard the Gjøa. This vessel was the first to sail along the Northwest Passage.
After a few minutes of the film and walking around, observing the numerous instruments, kits, journals, pictures, bottles and clothing, it sinks in just how daunting, not to mention risky, such an undertaking was in those times, when neither science nor technology was as advanced as it is today. These polar expeditions were unimaginably rough, and one can understand the bottles of aquavit displayed around the ship. You would drink too if it happened to you, doo-doo-doo-doo-doo.
Fueled by horrified fascination and admiration, we proceeded back to the Fram. First Fritjof Nansen and his crew sailed to the North Pole from 1893 to 1896, achieving fame in Norway and beyond as a result, both for themselves and the Fram. In 1912 Roald Amundsen once again surfaced in connection with a polar expedition, sailing to the Antarctic, to subsequently be the first to reach the South Pole on dog sleds.
The Fram is very big and very impressive, and it’s also possible to go aboard. Signs with “Please don’t climb on the rigging” are tacked on in several strategic spots. I look down from above. Really? I mean, seriously? Who would even come up with the idea?
Walking on deck I try to imagine the unknown vastness of the North Pole opening up ahead of me, with nothing but ice ahead, and maybe nature making some noise. Inside narrow sets of steps repeat themselves every now and then, as we go from room to room, all of which are quite cosy, though the ceilings are low and I think having only these places to go to for months on end must have been exhausting, though the explorers knew what they might be up against, as best as they could.
To complete the polar experience, make sure you pop in to this here Arctic simulator. I walked past this door three times before I realized that was the entrance. No more excuses now! And not because of the sub-zero temperatures, been there, done that, hair flip.
Next stop – the Viking Ship Museum! For what would a visit to Norway be without connecting with its viking history? The Vikingskiphuset houses artefacts and actual ships found in graves around the Oslofjord. The ships were used by vikings for sea voyages first, and then eventually hauled ashore to become burial vessels. Considering the amount of things (and animals) buried with the dead, one understands the use of the ships, and also with the significance attached to them in the viking way of life, there is something poignant about them being further connected to death and the afterlife, something, perhaps, about viewing sailing as eternal, both literally and spiritually. But these are my own musings only.
The first ship you see, with beautiful carvings on the front, was found at Oseberg, and it was a grave for two powerful women, one of whom had lived past the age of 80 (impressive for times when lifespans were famously short). The other ships and artefacts come from Gokstad, Tune and Borre. All had been ransacked and robbed before being discovered, unfortunately, but they are still currently the best preserved viking ships in the world. Somewhat skeletal, but eerily beautiful, it feels like images of the ships’ former glory are just out of reach. With my imagination buzzing, I made a stop at the museum shop here as well and got a book on viking times. I might have also browsed a little longer by the stall with the viking jewelry replicas. The costume jewelry ones, not the real silver, more expensive ones.
From ships and sailing we proceeded to our last stop – the Norwegian Folk Museum. Upon entering we receive a map with a useful “do not miss” section, which we duly peruse. The Norsk Folkemuseum exhibition is located completely outdoors (with free WiFi available) and it is very easy to feel as if you have indeed gone back in time, alternating between periods. Showing life in Norway from as far back as 1500, the museum does this through 160 historic buildings relocated from various sites. We barely saw anyone while there, which contributed to the pleasantly tingly ghosttown feeling (but since by this point it was sunny again, my imagination quieted somewhat after the viking ships).
A particularly interesting stop is the Wessels Gate 15 apartment building, which you can enter and see 8 apartments with interiors from the past 130 years. This was very cool, especially since it looked like the owners would pop back in any minute. The sun was still shining and a Beatles song was playing in the 60s section. One kitchen we could go in, but I couldn’t open any cupboards or drawers (probably nailed shut precisely because of visitors like me). The rest was observed from behind glass walls.
So much history in one day, and absolutely worth the time. I can’t even begin to decide which attraction I enjoyed most – they were all part of an incredibly exciting discovery of Oslo’s museum landscape. All of the above are included in the Oslo Pass.
We caught the bus and settled back to digest the day’s impressions during the next 20 minutes until getting out in town. Then we realized we still had time for another planned activity…