The old machine halls are coming back to life. Steam engines start up once again, historical looms are rattling, and a huge hammer drops on a piece of red-hot iron with a loud bang. Many disused industrial plants and former workshops in North Rhine-Westphalia have been converted into industrial museums and turned into popular excursion destinations that tell of the time of industrialisation while conveying an authentic impression of the everyday working life of the people of the 19th and 20th centuries. Visitors may even be allowed to lend a hand and experience first-hand that not all things were better in the past.
The clamour of machines
A steam engine wheel approaching four metres in height welcomes visitors to the German Werkzeugmuseum in Remscheid. The flywheel from 1907 is the first eye-catcher in a museum that spirits its guests away to the time of the great factories. From the time of industrialisation, the journey continues through the Middle Ages, and even further back to the Bronze and Stone Ages. There are no “Please do not touch” signs in the tool museum, by the way: Many of the tools can, in fact, not only be touched but even tried out by visitors.
Tinkerers, researchers, and explorers will find another place for experimentation in Velbert. The German Schloss- und Beschlägemuseum (lock and fittings museum) not only explains 4,000 years of history of locking and security technology, but also invites visitors to take action on some hands-on stations that set tasks such as deciphering the pharaoh’s secret to open the push-bolt lock, or proving a steady hand with Roman locks or 17th-century cash registers.
With banging and hissing, the drive belts whirr and the hammer is striking loudly on the red-hot iron. The LVR Hendrichs drop-forge industrial museum gives visitors the opportunity to watch as the hammer takes up operation. Once the largest drop forge in existence, this museum is one of a few sites that is not only fully preserved, but even continues to produce the museum scissors to this day.
The kind of cutlery that has been produced in the Bergisches Land since the 19th century – from simple knives to designer cutlery of the 21st century – can be found not far from the drop forge. The Solingen blade museum allows visitors to walk through the history of dining culture. The museum is logically placed, as Solingen is known as the “city of blades” and “Solingen” as a mark of origin is internationally recognised as proof of quality for knives of all kinds. Nevertheless, the museum exhibits cutting tools and cutlery from around the world, including some historical wooden spoons and an Iranian bronze sword.
The Westphalian Glockenmuseum Gescher has a sweeter sound than the drop forge. Visitors to the bell museum can explore the music room on their own and experiment with tones and sound development or listen to various bells being struck during guided tours. The bell pit presents the production of bells in the foundry
The early days of the textile industry
Cromford Cotton Mill, located right on the Anger River and embedded in an old English landscape park in Ratingen, was the very first factory on the European continent. It is one of the oldest preserved industrial facilities in Germany today. Founded by Wuppertal merchant and entrepreneur Johann Gottfried Brügelmann in 1783/84, it now represents the era of early industrialisation in the Rhineland. Visitors to the LVR Industrial Museum can watch the large wooden waterwheel driving a precise replica of the first fully mechanical spinning machine (“Water Frame”).
The LVR Industrial Museum Tuchfabrik Müller in Euskirchen is quite loud as well when its historical looms are starting up. Visitors can watch powerful carding machines combing wool and delicate spinning machines producing a fine yarn thread. One could imagine that the workers of that time have only taken a brief break from their tasks, as the machine halls remain just as they were back in 1961, when cloth manufacturer Kurt Müller stopped his machines and locked the doors to his once-flourishing factory in Euskirchen. Nothing has changed, from the tear-off calendar to the coffee mug and the recipe for a dye solution Ludwig Müller wrote down there in chalk more than 60 years ago.