The idea for the Museum der Arbeit first emerged at the end of the 1970s in response to the massive structural changes that were affecting work in industrial nations all over the world, and hence also had an impact on Hamburg. One of the aims of the initiators was to preserve valuable evidence of an industrial culture that was fast disappearing. In the 1970s, calls for the democratization of museums and the way in which history was presented led to the idea of setting up a museum that would be dedicated to “history from below”, to the history of ordinary people; it was to be a museum that was open for everybody.
The museum society was founded in 1980 with the objective of convincing the city to open this new museum. This endeavour was crowned with success in 1982, when the new project was included in the groups of Hamburg’s Historical Museums and the site of the former rubber factory New-York Hamburger Gummi-Waaren Compagnie in Hamburg-Barmbek was rented. The very first job was created; in 1985, the first Open Door Day was held for the general public. The museum has been open since, offering changing exhibitions and courses in the printing workshops, as well as a varied and informative range of guided historic tours of the city and its different districts.
One year later, in 1986, in recognition of its groundbreaking democratic concept the Museum der Arbeit received the Culture Prize of the Kulturpolitische Gesellschaft e.V.. In 1987, the senate of Hamburg decided to keep the museum permanently in the former factory site in Barmbek. A senate decision in 1989 saw the museum being officially elevated to the status of the seventh state-run museum in the city, a change which came into effect on 1 January 1990 and made the museum an independent institution. The permanent exhibition in the “Neue Fabrik” (“New Factory”) was opened at the beginning of 1997; on 1 January 1999, the Museum der Arbeit – like the other six state-run museums in the city – became a foundation under public law.
Since 1 January 2008, the Museum der Arbeit including its branches Hafenmuseum Hamburg and Speicherstadtmuseum, has officially belonged to the Stiftung Historische Museen Hamburg.