Travel is essentially an exercise in time management. How you choose to spend your time will inevitably be the deciding factor on any trip. For those who are time rich, this might seem like less of a concern, but ultimately, we all have to make decisions on where and what to see. Conversely, when you only have a two-week vacation, every minute can count. And thus, we come to one of the great difficulties of any trip: how much time to spend at a museum.
I don’t have any particular answer to this question as any museum visit rests on one’s individual interests and temperament. However, I can highlight what makes a museum standout. And as luck would have it, I recently had the chance to visit one such museum, the European Hansemuseum in Lübeck.
Lübeck is a port town and was a principal player in the Hanseatic League, a confederation of German city-states that operated a mercantile empire often considered an early forerunner to the free trade zones of today. By adopting a common commercial policy based on consensus, the Hanseatic cities were able to extract favorable trading terms from a multitude of cities, helping them monopolize the lucrative Baltic maritime trade.
You might think that a museum dedicated to trade talks and corporate law would be a tad on the dry side, but the Hansemuseum, opened in 2015, uses an innovative multimedia approach to tell the story of the league and the city of Lübeck. The result is an informative and engaging experience.
Through various exhibitions focusing on a specific theme or important trading partner, the Hansemuseum chronologically traces the roots of the league in the medieval salt trade to its eventual collapse in the 17th century. Each new topic or location comprises two rooms. The first provides an overview of the subject and time period, with a detailed historical representation, while the second contains related artifacts and documents.
For example, visitors are introduced to pre-league trade by embarking on a perilous journey to 12th-century Novgorod (situated in modern-day Russia). The exhibition is complete with a life-size representation of a Baltic convoy reaching the mouth of the Narva River. The next room then displays swords, armor, and other historical objects dated to this period of Hanseatic history.
As a multimedia museum, the Hansemuseum is heavily digitalized. Despite this, the majority of the information is provided through text, which is still the best way to consume and digest large amounts of information. Nevertheless, the museum also utilizes graphics, video, and sound to keep things from getting monotonous. One particular fun presentation is a real-life meeting of the Hansetag featuring a dispute between the league and the city of Danzig in the guise of a modern-day newscast.
Another welcomed touch, are map displays of Lübeck pointing out significant architecture or works of art connected to each room. It’s worth marking some of these on your phone as it definitely adds a little something when walking around the city.
However, what makes this museum truly unique are the entrance tickets which hold an electronic chip and enables you to access the digital screens inside. Apart from choosing a language, the ticket allows you to select a topic and a preferred city (I picked seafaring and Riga). As you move through the museum, personalized information based on your choices is displayed in connection to the theme or historical interval of each room.
This isn’t to say that the Hansemuseum is perfect. I’ve often found that the ideal museum experience lasts about two hours, but it takes between three and four to explore the Hansemuseum adequately. The customizable ticket feels more like an extra rather than an integral part of the exhibits while the artifact rooms are still a bit light on traditional museum pieces (something that likely will be rectified as the Hansemuseum expands its catalog). The timeline also ends rather abruptly, and the demise the Hanseatic League is only briefly outlined in the Friary (a 12th-century monastery that is included in the ticket). So there is certainly room for improvement.
Despite these shortcomings, there was a lot about the Hansemuseum that points to the future of museums in the years to come. In particular, customizable tickets are a great way to handle information overload in our digital age. They also encourage people to return as you can change the narrative.
Overall, I recommend visiting the Hansemuseum as a first stop if you plan to spend a full day or more in Lübeck. The museum puts the city in historical context, and its content is entertaining in its own right.