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The Emscher. Pictorial History of a River

Ruhr Museum, 12 metre-level
12. September 2022 – 16. April 2023

Visitor Service Ruhr Museum

"Schwatte", "Cloaca maxima", "Köttelbecke" or "the most expensive river in the world": The Emscher has had many names throughout its history. In the impressive industrial setting of the former coal washing plant of the Zollverein colliery, the temporary exhibition from 12.9.2022 to 16.4.2023 presented the entire visual history of the Emscher from pre-industrial times through industrialisation to the current ecological conversion of the Emscher system. The focus was on historical and current photographs from the archive of the Emschergenossenschaft, which has been photographically documenting its construction projects for around 120 years. Historical paintings, graphics and maps also showed the significant changes to the "river of destiny" and the entire region.

Film: Zeitlupe GmbH


With 400 pictures and nine films, the temporary exhibition impressively showed the history of the Emscher in pre-industrial times via the sewage and industrial flow to the renewed reconstruction of the Emscher system and renaturation in the present.
Over the course of a century, the Emscher was a symbol of environmental pollution and the industrial character of the Ruhr region. It stood for the dark side of industrialisation and the ecological victims of industrial value creation. What was once Germany's dirtiest river has been free of wastewater since the end of 2021. This marks the end of a process that, carried out by the Emschergenossenschaft, has shaped the infrastructure, economic, social and environmental history of the entire region for over a century.

The photo exhibition was part of a programme focus with which the Emschergenossenschaft, the Zollverein Foundation and the Ruhr Museum will honour the completed Emscher conversion in 2022. The renaturation, which began around 30 years ago, sets an example for the post-industrial Ruhr region, for environmental and flood protection, biodiversity and measures for adapting to the consequences of climate change. The theme year at the Zollverein World Heritage Site included a second exhibition entitled "Beyond Emscher", which could be experienced in the mixing plant until 6 November 2022, as well as numerous lectures, discussion events and excursions.

The old Emscher

In the coal-blackened bunkers, the old pre-industrial Emscher was first presented to you with around 100 pictures, plans and graphics. People have lived along the river, which is rich in fish, since prehistoric times, even though it harboured dangers and hardships because it frequently overflowed its banks and was not navigable. In the Middle Ages, numerous water castles and mills were built, which are presented with the help of graphics and paintings. They shaped a cultural landscape whose territorial borders were partly marked by the river. Impressive exhibits refer to the legends and myths surrounding the Emscher. Maps and plans transmitted impressions and stories of the wealth of the Emscher region in pre-industrial times. Finally, general maps and construction drawings documented the start of the Emscher's reconstruction at the beginning of the 20th century by the Emschergenossenschaft.


The industrial river

The exhibition focused on the photographs of the Emscher conversion at the beginning of the 20th century. The more than 200 photographs in the main room were mostly from the impressive historical glass plate negative archive of the Emschergenossenschaft. This unique collection comprises around 40,000 glass plates that have recorded the course of the Emscher and its streams as well as the construction sites. Photographs of the topographical conditions were needed for the planning of the enormous construction projects. The progress of the construction work was photographed as well as the damage caused by subsidence, material fatigue or the effects of war. Other focal points in the construction site documentation were sewage treatment plants and pumping stations. The panoramas and comparative pictures showed before and after conditions are particularly striking. They not only documented the conversion to an industrial river and the technical achievements involved, as well as the heaviness of the physical work, but also the enormous transformation of the landscape during the Emscher regulation. As a result, the collection is also a treasure trove of photographic and social history that impressively depicts the development of settlement and industry in the Ruhr region over an entire century.


The new Emscher

And finally, the exhibition visualises the new Emscher, the renewed reconstruction of the Emscher system and the renaturation of the river, by means of visual media commissioned in the past decades. The photographs and films produced from 2000 onwards again serve to document the reconstruction of an entire region and also for image purposes.
These include the film project EMSCHERSKIZZEN by the Witten film teams Christoph Hübner and Gabriele Voss as well as the numerous projects initiated by the Emschergenossenschaft with photographers.
A central role was played by the projects of Henning Maier-Jantzen, who - commissioned by the Emschergenossenschaft - has been documenting the Emscher conversion from a lifting platform for over 10 years.
Finally, the Emschergenossenschaft's new technically advanced documentation methods, such as computer-generated images and VR and AR technology, were presented, as were its new fields of activity in cultural and tourist areas, such as the Emscher Art Trail and the Emscher Trail, which is popular with cyclists and walkers, or its sustainable projects for climate impact adaptation, biodiversity, urban greening and social urban planning. They showed the picture of an Emscher region once again undergoing a complete transformation in the present and the near future.


Audio guide APP

Free of charge and on your own smartphone: our new audio guide APP made a visit to the exhibition "The Emscher. Pictorial History of a River" became a lasting experience. The free audio guide APP offered an exciting audio guide tour with 22 stations through the special exhibition in German and English. In the service section, it also answered all the important questions about your visit to the museum.

The audio guide APP for the exhibition was available for free download here:

App Stores


The picture archive of the Emschergenossenschaft

The picture archive, which was established shortly after the founding of the Emschergenossenschaft (1899), is one of the most important archives in the region and now comprises 200,000 digital and analogue picture units. The collection is supplemented by a fund of aerial photographs from the 1920s onwards. It offers a unique documentation of water management in the northern Ruhr region from 1906 to 1966. A total of 40,000 glass plate negatives were digitised in a process lasting several years and handed over to the Ruhr Museum in 2005 for photo-conservation.


The sponsor

The Emschergenossenschaft is a water management company under public law that lives the cooperative principle as the guiding principle of its own actions. It was founded in 1899 as the first organisation of its kind in Germany and since then has been responsible, among other things, for the maintenance of the Emscher, wastewater disposal and purification, and flood protection.



The accompanying programme

During the duration of the exhibition, an extensive supporting programme took place for you at the UNESCO World Heritage Zollverein in Essen. It included a series of lectures, a panel discussion, a film cycle and film evenings, excursions through the Ruhr region and a bicycle tour to the artworks on the Emscher Art Trail.

Families discovered the Emscher your way with quizzes (German and English), guided tours and workshops.

Each guided tour from the programme of events could also be booked by you as an individual group tour. You can arrange the language, time, group size and topic with our colleagues in the visitor service.

You can find all past events related to the exhibition clearly arranged in our flyer.


The catalogue

The 288-page catalogue "The Emscher. Pictorial History of a River" with over 370 illustrations shows the entire history of the Emscher with historical and current images of its gigantic transformation processes. It is edited by Heinrich Theodor Grütter and Uli Paetzel. The volume costs € 29.95 and is published by Klartext Verlag, Essen. ISBN number: 978-3-8375-2531-1

You are welcome to buy the catalogue in our shop before or after your visit to the exhibition.