Heavy industry is heavy labour – for man and machines. A very clear example is the ten metre high steam forging hammer dating back to 1900, which stands in a museum on the site of the Altenberg zinc factory in Oberhausen. You only have to stand in front of this monster to suddenly feel very small indeed. Television screens show what a grinding job it was to operate the powerful hammer. Indeed the museum, one of the six sites of the Rhineland Industrial Museum, has a huge collection of discarded steel-making machines in its collection: a two-wheel rotary press from the 1920s, a Krupp steam locomotive, not to speak of rollers, lathes, planes and other similar equipment. Some of them are still in working order and are used for show demonstrations. The exhibition in the old rolling mill deals with 150 years of iron and steel on the Rhine and Ruhr. It’s obvious that technology played a huge role in this history. Visitors can even stroll through a blast furnace and see molten pig iron being made from iron ore and coke – all in virtual reality of course. The museum regards it as very important to look at the everyday lives of the workers in the shadow of the factories. Themes like working-class housing estates, schools, sickness insurance and shopping in the company’s own cooperative store are dealt with alongside conflicts with the bosses as a result of the often very hard conditions of work in heavy industry. Damage to the environment and the health were regular subjects of dispute. Indeed the Altenberg zinc factory itself had to be cleared of lead, quicksilver and other pollution in the earth and brickworks before the museum could begin to move in. It has all proved worthwhile. A total of nine different sections are fitted out with state-of-the-art audio-visual aids which bring back to life the rise and fall of heavy industry in the Ruhrgebiet.
The Altenberg zinc factory which opened in 1854 is one of the oldest metal-processing works in Oberhausen. Sheet zinc was mostly produced here until its closure in 1981. The adjoining factory owner’s villa now houses the headquarters of the Rhineland Industrial Museum. The Museum of Heavy Industry opened its doors in 1997. Oberhausen, a traditional iron and steel town, is the ideal site for such a museum.