Hamburg: Museum of Hamburg History

I generally try to visit a city history museum everywhere I travel to get a better sense of the place, if the city in question has one, and fortunately, Hamburg was happy to oblige with the Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte (Hamburg History Museum). I was initially a little wary about visiting, because their website was entirely in German with no other language options, which typically isn’t a good sign in terms of there being English in the museum. However, the reviews on Trip Advisor assured me that there were English translations available in the museum, so I was willing to take a chance. The museum is located in the middle of a rather nice park (or at least it would have been rather nice had there not been such an icy wind outside), so on a reasonably warm day you can grab yourself a franzbrotchen from one of the city’s many bakeries, and enjoy the stroll (I still ate the franzbrotchen, I just didn’t enjoy the stroll).

Admission to the museum is normally €9.50, but we only paid €6 with the Hamburg Card, and it was a big museum (never mind that this type of museum would be free in the UK). We started our visit on the first floor with medieval Hamburg, and I was pleased to see that the vast majority of labels did have an English translation available. Unfortunately, I realised I just wasn’t really that interested in medieval Hamburg, at least not in the dry way it was presented here, so I kind of skimmed over this section. Fortunately, I did enter the dark wood panelled space at the end of this gallery, because it unexpectedly contained the object I most wanted to see (which I learned about on Atlas Obscura before visiting) – a skull with a spike through it!

The skull was found during construction in 1878, and has been at the Hamburg History Museum since 1922, except for a brief hiatus in 2010 when it was stolen, then recovered. It is thought to be the head of notorious 14th century pirate Klaus Störtebeker (yeah, I’ve never heard of him either), which had a spike driven through it so it could be displayed on a post as a deterrent to others (the video there mentioned that the hole had been made “very carefully,” and I had to wonder whether it was done when it actually was a skull, or when it was a fresh head, with flesh and brains still attached, which definitely would have required great care not to splatter brains everywhere!). At any rate, though their methods of execution were horrible, they weren’t that horrible, and it was done after Klaus was dead (from beheading) – it’s not a Phineas Gage type situation, although it’s not like Phineas was walking around with a spike through his head for long either. The head next to it is a reconstruction of what he might have looked like, based on the skull. There was also a display showing what a full row of these skulls would have looked like (there was an occasion where 78 pirates were executed on the same day, so although it already makes for a grim display, it could have been much worse), and some tools of execution, including the wheel, which they basically just smashed into your body until you were dead (so I’m not quite sure why it had to be a wheel shape, when a stick would have worked just as well, but there we are). If, like me, you are interested in this sort of thing and have a strong stomach, I recommend Joel F. Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner, which is about an early modern German executioner.

One thing I learned at this museum is that Germans (or at least Hamburgers) really really love model-sized versions of pretty much everything. Houses, churches, ships, trains, you name it (my god, how they love a model railway, and don’t worry, I’ll get to the shitshow that is Miniatur Wunderland in a later post). Before we went to this museum, I was planning on also visiting Hamburg’s Maritime Museum, but I had read that it is basically just nine floors of model ships, and after looking at two galleries full of model ships here, I really couldn’t face any more. But Hamburg’s maritime history is genuinely interesting because it is such a massive part of what shaped the city, and I was especially excited to see that they had their own section on Ballinstadt, which frankly told me more of what I wanted to know than the Emigration Museum did.

For example, they had a chart showing the price of various voyages on the HAPAG line, and what those prices would translate into today, so I learned that my great-grandmother paid the equivalent of €600 for her voyage in steerage to the US (about what a flight costs today). They also had a chart showing more information about some of HAPAG’s ships, and I could see that the President Lincoln was included, but unfortunately, the relevant parts of the chart were covered up by other papers, so I don’t actually know what they had to say about it. There was also some information about the cholera epidemic in Hamburg and what that meant for Ballinstadt, and way more photos of the complex than were at the Emigration Museum. I don’t regret visiting Ballinstadt and seeing it in person, but I wish they could have incorporated more of this on site, rather than my having to accidentally stumble upon it here.

And to get back on the subject of models, the museum has its very own model railway, which runs every hour on the hour. There is a guy who sits in a booth above it, and gives what appears to be a running commentary on all the action (in German of course), which I found hilarious. What a job, model railway commentator! It was pretty big and impressive though, and (spoiler alert) a much better experience than Miniatur Wunderland, since there were only a handful of people in here, though I must admit that I’m not the sort of person that gets my jollies from watching a model railway, even at the best of times.

The museum also has a gallery on Jewish life in Hamburg, complete with a replica (life-size this time) of a synagogue, though only one small sign in each room was translated into English, so I couldn’t read most of it. There were more galleries on clothing and music, and this weird social history sort-of-house structure that you walked through, exploring the 20th century through each of the three different floors (though don’t bother going upstairs, it’s just where they store the chairs for events). Because I have the sense of humour of a teenage boy, I laughed way too hard at the dickmilch part of the sign below, which was in the replica dairy. Half a kilo is more than enough, thanks.

This museum is way too big for me to talk about each gallery in detail, but other highlights included the section on the Great Fire of Hamburg in 1842, which had various objects partially melted by the fire (seems like every city has to have a “great fire” at some point until they learn their lesson and start implementing better fire safety measures (hope that doesn’t sound too harsh in the wake of Notre Dame, but it does go to show that there’s still work to be done when it comes to preventing fires)), the interactive map where you could see how Hamburg expanded over time, and the replica ship you could climb aboard. I only gave a cursory visit to some of the galleries, because there was too much to read on one visit, and we still spent so long here we didn’t end up having time to visit any other museums that day. I think some of the history galleries could have been more interactive, because some of them were frankly boring and seemed to stretch on forever, but the more modern sections of the museum were great (in particular the ones about HAPAG and the fire), and there was enough here for something to appeal to everyone, especially model enthusiasts. 3/5.




  1. Sounds like a bit of everything to the point that most people could find something to be interested in. It wouldn’t be model ships for me either, though I quite like the rotating display at the Riverside Museum in Glasgow. I can’t remember if you went to that one. In the old transport museum they just had a huge room full of ships which I never looked at. At the Riverside I will at least stand for a few minutes to see what “sails” past.

    1. Thanks! I wish they could have had a more detailed explanation of how they prepared the heads for display for the more macabre visitors like myself. Apparently dickmilch is just soured milk, so just an unfortunately named buttermilk I guess. Although dickmilk probably comes closer to describing the flavour of the stuff better than buttermilk, which sounds misleadingly tasty. It makes good cakes, but I wouldn’t want to drink it!

      1. We can’t the only people interested in display heads, surely! When I was much younger, there was a shop in my town that sold books about witchcraft and new age mysticism as well as various paraphernalia – it had skulls on display too. They looked real, but I never found out whether they were.

  2. I’ll give another vote for skulls being fascinating. The wall of skulls is my favorite part of the Mutter museum – there is just something so fascinating about the variety of sizes and shapes (and especially those that have evidence of trauma/illness). The museum even lets you adopt one as part of their fundraising, so clearly there are plenty of people out there who are also fascinated. I knew nothing about Hamburg before your posts. I love learning new stuff!

    1. I love the wall of skulls at the Mutter too (and the mega-colon, and the soap lady – pretty much everything in there to be honest). I follow them on Instagram, and it seems like they always have interesting stuff going on.

  3. I read the line “a skull with a spike through it!” and actually said “Yes!” out loud. You know how to deliver the goods. But I must admit I find their rendering of the guy in life unappealingly shaggy. I like my impaled pirates a little better groomed. Dapper, preferably.
    How much could the model train guy have to say about the hourly trip? It’s too bad it was only in German because I’d love to know if he ever ad-libs storylines for the action.
    Your dickmilch comment gets the chef-finger-kiss of approval from me. Perfection.

    1. He was quite an early pirate though, centuries before the sort of Restoration/Georgian fashions that we normally think of when we think of pirates, so we can’t expect him to be too dapper. Though I know exactly what you mean – I absolutely want my pirates to be in one of those great coats with the long back and all the brass buttons.
      Hahaha, I do that chef finger kiss thing all the time, usually after Marcus cooks an especially tasty dinner (his falafel = *finger kiss* (not a euphemism)).

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