Zollverein Coal Mine – an industrial complex as a work of art

Zeche Zollverein
Symbol of the UNESCO World Heritage Site: the 55-metre-high winding tower at Zollverein's Shaft XII.

The last kilograms of anthracite coal were brought up from the ground in Germany on 21 December 2018. "Dear miners", said Germany's Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at Prosper-Haniel mine in Bottrop at the time, "this is indeed more than a piece of coal, this is history." With the closure of this mine in the Ruhr region, over 200 years of industrial coal mining history in Germany came to an end.

Production at the Zollverein coal mine, which is just a few kilometres away, stopped earlier than in Bottrop. The last time miners descended into the shafts at Zollverein, formerly the world's largest and most productive mine, was in 1986. A few years later, work began to clean up and restore the industrial complex. The buildings and equipment on the 100-hectare site have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage since 2001. With designers focusing on everything from the arrangement of the buildings right down to such details as lamps and door handles, the industrial complex is regarded as a work of art in its own right that represents not only the social and economic but also the aesthetic history of the coal and steel age.

Structural transformation: a gain, and a loss

When hard coal mining finally came to an end in Germany two years ago, researchers began studying its history with renewed enthusiasm. "The history of mining in Germany is actually pretty well researched", says Stefan Moitra from the Deutsches Bergbau-Museum in Bochum. "But we believed that this was the right time to ask people about their memories." Together with two colleagues from the History of the Ruhr Foundation, he interviewed more than 80 former miners for the project, as well as others who had worked in the mining industry in the Ruhr area and in smaller coal-mining regions elsewhere in West Germany since 1945.

The memories, which can be found on the website "People in Mining" (in German only), document among other things how mechanisation and computerisation have transformed mining over the past 50 years from the viewpoint of the workers themselves. In addition, the accounts bear witness to the fears and physical exertions that miners had to endure while working underground. The miners also spend a lot of time talking about how they experienced the structural transformation – the downswing in the industry that began during the coal crisis of the late 1950s and led to the mines being closed, one by one. By the mid-1960s, 170,000 people in the Ruhr region had already lost their jobs as a result. After years of heated disputes involving strikes and mass demonstrations, companies, unions and politicians eventually agreed on a new strategy at the end of the 1960s: rather than risking mass unemployment, poverty and considerable social unrest, older workers were sent into early retirement. Their younger colleagues were given training, for example as electricians or industrial mechanics, to improve their chances of getting a job in another sector. "I find it fascinating how the crisis is viewed", says Moitra. "On the one hand as a success that is shared by everyone, yet on the other hand many suffered a great deal from losing their jobs and had to cope with early retirement."

Most popular day out in the region

Whereas the political maxim for the working world was to avoid social hardship wherever possible, the guiding philosophy adopted by the Zollverein World Heritage Site was "preservation through repurposing". As a result, the site today is home to a museum devoted to the region's natural and cultural history; in addition, Zollverein is a popular event location and a venue for sensational art projects. It is even considered the most popular day out in the region.

Furthermore, this historic monument is a centre for business and research. Since 2006, scientists from the Erwin L. Hahn Institute have been working at the former coking plant, exploring new methods and techniques in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in collaboration with a number of German and Dutch universities. In addition, the site has also been home since 2017 to the Faculty of Design of Essen's long-established Folkwang University of the Arts. Thus the Zollverein today is not only a place of memories, but also a place of the present and the future.