The German Customs Museum: a story of criminal failure

A visit to the former Kornhausbrücke customs office is a bittersweet encounter with the history of ingenuity and failure. Many of the 40,000 exhibits found their way into the evidence room and from there into the display cases of the museum after attentive customs officers had tracked them down in cleverly devised hiding places. Cocaine in hollowed out hazelnuts, untaxed cigarettes in leather footballs, diamonds in matchboxes. The criminal imagination knows no bounds. The implementation alone brought many down; for example, alcohol hidden in canned peas was discovered because the smugglers had messed up the spelling on the fake labels.

Customs Free Port Collage Nin Kaber
The free port was an invention of the nation state and a guarantee for the development of the port. The wrangling over privileges, stacking areas and customs duties has been at the heart of Hamburg's trade policy since the Middle Ages. Composing/Collage: © ELBE&FLUT, Nin Kaber

In addition to the story of burst smuggling ideas, the museum shows the history of customs in a very entertaining way, starting with the apostle Matthew (known as the customs officer), from whose time one of the oldest exhibits dates: a Roman gatehouse receipt on a papyrus dating from 41 AD.

The journey continues on to the GDR customs officers, who at the time were mainly looking for Western cigarettes in addition to Western propaganda, to the trade in stolen antiques and rare exotic animals from all continents – the flip side of the world port, which was once symbolised by the builders of the Speicherstadt opposite the museum, on Kornhausbrücke, in the statues of colonial naval heroes: Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama on the city side, Ferdinand Magellan and James Cook, now destroyed, on the free port side.

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Fischertwiete 2
D-20095 Hamburg

The Info Point is open Mon-Fri from 10 am to 3pm. We look forward to welcoming you in our new premises in Fischertwiete. Then let our competent staff advise you or simply browse through the past yourself.