The Saxon town of Oelsnitz has always been a hive of activity – underground in days gone by, and nowadays above ground. Jan Färber presses a button and fires up Saxony’s biggest steam engine, which stands on the site of the former Oelsnitz coal mine. The youthful, curly-haired director of Oelsnitz Mining Museum is a keen engineering fan and his enthusiasm is infectious. “This machine used to lift thousands of miners in and out of the mine shaft every day,” he says. The twin cylinder steam-driven winding engine is the largest functioning machine of its kind, and when it gets going it immediately brings the mining history of the Karl Liebknecht Pit to life.

That is precisely what Jan Färber and the museum team aim to achieve. They want visitors to experience the mine and its rich history first hand for themselves. “We don’t just want to present a collection of lifeless objects – we want to do more, and we can do more,” says Färber. One of the exhibits he and his team have created is a carboniferous forest consisting of a multimedia coal forest installation that visitors can walk through. Visitors can also descend into the mine – where the temperature feels close to 40 degrees Celsius – and see where sweat-drenched miners hewed “black gold” from the earth as recently as the early 1970s. There’s also an opportunity to travel on the “Funkenkutsche” miners’ tram, while the museum’s very youngest visitors can have fun in the “Zwergenschacht” children’s mine and huge adventure playground. Oelsnitz Mining Museum presents an unfamiliar world – loud, dirty, full of coal dust and often surprising. “Did you know that not far from here there’s a smouldering spoil heap where coal fragments still erupt into flames to this day?” asks Färber. This huge former coalfield has now been turned into a recreation area where cacti and other tropical plants grow on a ten-square-metre plot and hot coal fumes billow out of holes in the ground. And if a sudden change in the weather high above the treetops catches you by surprise, you can take refuge on the “hot seat” – a metal structure that is anchored in the hot earth as a source of heat. It’s a quick way to warm up and another very tangible sign of the legacy that mining has left behind.

www.bergbaumuseum-oelsnitz.de