Museums in the COVID-19 Crisis: International Maritime Museum Hamburg

As summer begins in Germany most establishments have reopened in some capacity, including museums. All are still operating under restrictions, with limits on numbers of visitors and mask requirements being ubiquitous. All museums, municipal and private, are required to adhere to national and local government regulations. This series so far has covered municipal and state-funded museums, but not a privately-run museum. This article will investigate the International Maritime Museum in Hamburg, one of the largest private museums in Germany, and how it is handling COVID-19. 

Exterior of the International Maritime Museum Hamburg
© Michael Zapf

The International Maritime Museum is located in a circa-1879 harbor warehouse in Hamburg’s Speicherstadt (“City of Warehouses”) near the city’s port. The museum’s collection was gathered by Hamburg journalist and maritime enthusiast Peter Tamm, who began collecting after receiving a toy boat from his mother at the age of six in 1934.1 The museum opened in 2008, featuring a collection of around 40,000 model ships (including Tamm’s toy boat) and a plethora of shipping and naval artifacts. The museum has eight floors total, each dedicated to a specific theme of maritime history or technology. The themes range from exploration to merchant shipping to navies, with significant attention to Hamburg area and German maritime history. The lower floors focus on early maritime history and navigation, with exhibits on Classical-era sailing, Early Modern exploration, piracy, and the international slave trade. The middle floors feature exhibits on navies, with several artifacts related to German naval history. One notable display here features an officer’s uniform from every navy in the world. The upper floors display most of the model ship collection, a gallery of maritime art, and space for temporary exhibitions. There is also a highly-detailed hip simulator, with a recreated cargo ship bridge. Groups of visitors can work together to guide the ship into Hamburg’s port, with guidance from experienced sailors who advise the simulation. 

Peter Tamm, the museum’s founder
© Christian O. Bruch
The toy boat that started it all
Photo by Andrey Belenko
An exhibit about cruise ships on the museum’s sixth floor
© vdl

The International Maritime Museum followed similar procedures to public museums in Germany when the coronavirus hit the country, and closed its doors on March 16th, 2020. During the closure period, the staff made routine updates to the museum’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages, keeping guests informed about what was going on. On the Facebook page they had been posting a picture and description of one of their models almost every day since 2016. This task became increasingly important during the pandemic closure. The museum recorded above-average activity on their social media pages, with more likes and comments than ever before. In addition to posts about each of the models in their collection, the page also posted highlights from some of the museum’s other exhibitions, such as navigational instruments and travel ephemera. Additionally, a museum guide livestreamed two tours of the museum in the month of April: one in German and one in English. These tours reportedly had over 45,000 views.2

A screenshot of the museum’s Facebook page

The museum reopened on May 7th, with limitations in place. Guided tours are not taking place, and the ship simulator is closed. However, these are slated to start again on July 1st. Visitors are required to maintain social distancing and wear masks while inside the museum, and to wash their hands thoroughly. These procedures are the same as what has been seen at other museums featured in this series. Peter Tamm spoke of the museum’s reopening: 

“As a private museum, the closure ordered by the authorities hit us particularly hard. The past few weeks have been difficult, but our museum has a new look when it reopens. We have carried out cosmetic repairs and cleaning work and hopefully many enthusiastic visitors will find new exhibits on many decks. “3

Despite the difficulties presented by closure for a private museum. The Maritime Museum took the opportunity refurbish its displays and add new additions to its galleries. A new temporary exhibition, titled “Johannes Holst – Painter of the Sea” opened with the museum’s reopening. This gallery features detailed ship paintings from early twentieth-century German marine artist Johannes Holst, previously held in private collections and not accessible to the public. The exhibition runs until July 19th.4

The International Maritime Museum weathered the worst part of the COVID-19 crisis doing much of the same things its municipal counterparts did. It engaged an audience through social media, inviting them to experience the museum from home. In doing they attracted attention from a greater number of viewers than they had encountered before, potentially attracting many new visitors for the post-lockdown months to follow. 

  1. Matthias Gretzschel and Michael Zapf, Am Anfang war das Schiff – Das Internationale Maritime Museum in Hamburg – Sein Stifter und Gründer Peter Tamm (Hamburg: 2012), 10. []
  2. “Die Wiedereröffnung am 7. Mai,” Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg, last modified May 5, 2020, https://www.imm-hamburg.de/2020/05/die-wiedereroeffnung-am-7-mai/. []
  3. Museum, “Die Wiedereröffnung.” []
  4. “Sonderaustellung,” Internationales Maritimes Musem Hamburg, last modified June 13, 2020, https://www.imm-hamburg.de/museum/sonderausstellung/. []