Red Star Line Museum opens exhibition in New York

'Via Antwerp. The road to Ellis Island' - May 27th - September 3rd 2016

This summer, the Ellis Island National Immigration Museum will host the exhibition Via Antwerp, The Road to Ellis Island, which was created by the internationally acclaimed Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp, Belgium. The guests of honor at the opening event on 26 May are the children and grandchildren of Irving Berlin, who arrived in 1898 in the U.S. on a Red Star Line ship at the age of 5, under the name of Israel Isidore Beilin. The exhibition tells the story of the two million men, women and children from all over Europe, who left their homes, like young Izzy Beilin, to travel to the port of Antwerp where they embarked on the Red Star Line ships on a journey to a new future in America. Via Antwerp will run from 27 May until 4 September in the temporary exhibition space on the first floor next to the Great Hall of Ellis Island, where steerage passengers queued for immigration inspection.

The exhibition was opened in the presence of Mr Philip Heylen, Vice-Mayor for culture of the City of Antwerp and Mr Joshua Laird, Commissioner of the National Parks of New York Harbor. Several generations of the Berlin family have also attended the opening as guests of honor to pay tribute to the journey which their grandfather took over 120 years ago with the Red Star Line.

The exhibition

From 1815 until 1940, around 60 million emigrants from all over Europe left their homeland for America in hopes of a better life. From 1873 to 1934, the Red Star Line shipping company ferried nearly two million of these emigrants from Antwerp in Belgium to the United States. Most of them arrived in New York. The permanent exhibition of the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp (Belgium) highlights many of the personal stories and memories of passengers who made the journey on board of a Red Star Line ship.

In this tiny yet compelling exhibition, the Red Star Line Museum brings their story back to the U.S., and Ellis Island in particular. The narrative elaborates on a typical journey to New York around 1900 and starts in a travel agency of the Red Star Line in Russia. Migrants would then illegally cross the border from Russia into the West, travelling by train to Antwerp, where they would walk through the city and to the port and board a Red Star Line ship for the long ocean voyage before arriving at Ellis Island. Via Antwerp features a selection of interactive story booths, personal objects, artwork, a large ship model and publicity for the shipping company.

This travelling exhibition is designed, produced and installed by Tempora, a Belgian company for exhibition production and museum management, in collaboration with Christophe Gaeta, the scenographer of the permanent exhibition of the Red Star Line Museum for Beyer Blinder Belle.

‘Via Antwerp’ is designed with ‘Tempocases’, a state of the art, flexible, all integrated, easy to install travelling exhibition system.

Guests of honor: the Berlin Family

Various descendants of Red Star Line passengers will attend the exhibition opening. The guests of honor at the opening are Irving Berlin’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The Red Star Line Museum maintains a friendship with the family of one of the most famous steerage passengers of the Red Star Line, the composer Irving Berlin.

In 1893 five-year old Israel Isidore Beilin embarked on board the Red Star Line’s SS Rijnland, along with his family to start a new life in the United States. Young “Izzy” is the perfect example of the American Dream. Changing his name to Irving Berlin, he became famous all over the world with hits like “White Christmas”, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “There’s no business like show business”. A mere twenty years after his crossing to America as an immigrant travelling in steerage, some of the best orchestras performed his hits in the first-class salons on board Red Star Line ships.

A mirror of what is happening in Europe Today

The stories told in Via Antwerp. The road to Ellis Island transcend the strictly historical narrative. They speak of courage, loss, anxiety, fear, of the dreams and expectations of millions of immigrants in their quest for happiness and a better future. Like the original narrative in Antwerp’s Red Star Line Museum, the subtext of this travelling exhibition thus somehow mirrors what is happening in Europe today.

“The story of the Red Star Line passengers is a Belgian story about people who embarked on a Red Star Line ship in Antwerp because they were motivated by poverty or because they were looking for adventure,” Antwerp’s Vice-Mayor for Culture Philip Heylen emphasizes. “But it is also a European story because most of the Red Star Line passengers came from Eastern Europe. At the same time, it is a story about the ancestors of Americans, about their roots and how they made it to America. But first and foremost, this is a universal story. Migration and human mobility is a timeless phenomenon, which has always existed: millions of people all over the world left, and continue to leave, the familiar behind, looking for a new future elsewhere.”

The Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp as a mirror of the Ellis Island National Immigration Museum in New York

The Red Star Line Museum opened in 2013 in the old port of Antwerp, and is located in the former buildings which were used for the inspection of the Red Star Line’s steerage passengers. It was their

last stop on the European mainland before sailing to the United States. Steerage passengers underwent all kinds of medical examinations and administrative checks in these buildings. Their fate was decided here. After a boat trip, the passengers would arrive at Ellis Island, where they would queue again to be inspected before they were admitted to the U.S.

Before the opening of the museum, the story of the Red Star Line was largely forgotten in Antwerp. But many Americans still remembered the tales their parents or grandparents told them about their journey. The National Museum of Immigration at Ellis Island has a treasure trove of oral history interviews with immigrants and personnel who worked in the immigration processing center. Together with the rich archives found at New York’s YIVO Center for Jewish History, the oral history program and collections at Ellis Island thus became a source of inspiration and a point of departure for the research team in Antwerp, which was working on the new Red Star Line Museum. Sixty immigration testimonies and autobiographies of Red Star Line passengers were identified, both at YIVO and in Ellis Island. These sixty testimonies marked the start of a partnership between the two museums. Via Antwerp consolidates this long-standing cooperation.

Today the Ellis Island National Immigration Museum and the Red Star Line Museum, on either side of the Atlantic, are active partners in the International Coalition for Sites of Conscience. This organization, which has its headquarters in New York and its European headquarters in the Red Star Line Museum, organized a program of “Immigration Dialogues” in recent years in the U.S, debating current migration themes with various audiences in various historic sites. Currently the European Coalition for Sites of Conscience is preparing a similar project in Europe.

About the Red Star Line Museum

The Red Star Line Museum opened in 2013 in the old port of Antwerp, and is located in the former building which was used for the inspection of the Red Star Line’s steerage passengers, in Antwerp’s up and coming Eilandje district. The museum invites the public to take an eventful journey, following in the footsteps of the migrants and confronts its visitors with a question: How are the stories of Red Star Line passengers and their passage through the buildings relevant to us today? In 2014, the Huffington Post called the Red Star Line Museum “one of the World’s hottest new museums”. The museum also received a Special Commendation at the European Museum of the Year Awards in 2015.

Press File Via Antwerp

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Karen Vandenberghe

Responsable marketing & communication Red Star Line Museum, Stad Antwerpen

Nadia De Vree

Press coordinator, Stad Antwerpen

About Red Star Line Museum

The Red Star Line Museum invites you on an eventful journey in the footsteps of the emigrants. Become acquainted with the passengers and accompany them on their trip from their native village to Antwerp. The ocean steamers of the Red Star Line are docked on the quay ready to depart for the New World. Exciting and personal stories accompany you across the ocean. On the other side of the ocean you say goodbye to your fellow passengers.


Montevideostraat 3 2000 Antwerpen Belgium

+ 32 3 298 27 70

[email protected]