By Chris McBeath

Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp

Without the Red Star Line, the likes of Fred Astaire and Irving Berlin may never have inspired our creative world so expansively; former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir may never stepped onto the world stage, and without Arthur Murray my Aunt Julie may never have learned to Waltz. These were just a handful of the roughly 60 million migrants who left Germany and Eastern Europe between 1815-1940 in the hope of a better life in the New World: North America.

The Red Star Line Museum, housed in the former Red Star Line warehouses in Antwerp tells their story with compelling clarity.

Some two million of them came from as far east as Dusseldorf, Krakaw, and the depths of Russia, regions where famine, wars, natural disasters, discrimination and persecution made life in Europe unbearable. Their passage often involved an arduous train journey (4th class comprised cramped, wooden benches and little else) to traverse the continent before stepping aboard a Red Star vessel to cross the ocean.

The museum incorporates eight thematic areas including a train compartment, the steam-ship’s warehouse where potential passengers were subjected to long, disinfecting showers and medical examinations; the company was responsible for the cost of repatriating any emigrants who didn’t make it past the boundaries of Ellis Island so this pre-boarding process was particularly thorough.

One display, the deck of an ocean steamer, reveals that crossing to America was no pleasurable cruise even though voices of emigrants plunge the onlooker into the prevalent atmosphere of hope, excitement and anticipation.

It is the personal items, letters and testimonies of passengers that make some areas especially poignant: like having to send your nine-year-old daughter back to Antwerp on her own because she had trachoma and was refused entry to the United States. Or letters home that described Chicago “like Poland but better”.

Perhaps most thought provoking is the museum’s ability to put the immigrant story into a contemporary context as it shares the joys, hardships and heritage of many an American and Canadian family. That relevancy is one reason why Red Line is nominated for the European Museum of the Year, 2015. Information:

Musical Instruments, Brussels

Brussels may be a centre of European diplomacy, culture and architectural elegance, but its irreverent side is far more fun. Think Tin Tin and his trusted four-legged accomplice Snowy; Pistoir, the city’s symbolic statue of a peeing cherub; and chocolate, the smell of which scents the air with aromatic wafts of sugar. Little surprise then, that in addition to all the grand cultural destinations and galleries comes a toy museum, a comic strip market most Sundays, and an extraordinary collection in The Musical Instruments Museum.

Anticipation starts before entering the quirky, five story building. A former Old England department store once favoured among the city’s most fashionable ladies in the early 1900s, its jaw-dropping, metal and glass art nouveau façade promises something unexpected.

Each level explores a different musical genre such as the history of western music, percussion, stringed instruments and so on. Straightforward as this appears, many of the objects on display prove that today’s cornets, strumming and wind instruments have a peculiar ancestry.

The displays of aero-phones alone include the Bulgarian Kaba Galda, a Turkish Tulum and a Hungarian Duda; bagpipes are apparently many centuries old (some suggest even to Roman times) and that those played in Scotland is very much a newcomer.

Many of the earliest pianos and harpsichords are so decorative and imaginatively engineered, (one is shaped like a pyramid), they are intricate works of art. Then there is the percussion section where you’ll see how Tibetan monks used the bones of their deceased colleagues as musical instruments, and how African slit-drums were an original, indigenous form of Twitter.

Although there are no English translations to what is seen, never fear because everything is in the language of music: visitors are provided with infra-red audio guides that share how a particular instrument actually sounds and they really make the exhibits come to life.

For anyone interested in music, children and adults alike, this is a gem of a discovery, as is the building’s rooftop café and its amazing city panoramas.

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Photos in the order they appear:

  1. Header photo; credit Fred Romero under CC license 2.0
  2. Red Star Line Museum; credit Noortje Palmers
  3. Red Star Line Suitcases Display; credit Studio Hans Op de Beeck
  4. Disinfecting units; credit Red Star Line Museum
  5. Poster, Antwerp-New York; credit Henri Cassiers
  6. Poster, Anvers-Canada; credit Henri Cassiers
  7. Rooftop view; credit Chris McBeath
  8. Guitar harp; credit Chris McBeath
  9. Early bagpipe; credit Chris McBeath
  10. Ornamental keyboards; credit Chris McBeath
  11. 3-keyboard harpsichord; credit Chris McBeath
  12. Bellows keyboard; credit Chris McBeath