Waterloo: Researching an exhibition

In the past six months I have been interning with the department of Scottish History and Archaeology. I am a student at the Humboldt University Berlin, doing a Master’s degree in British Studies, and the internship is part of my course. Soon after my arrival in August 2014, I started assisting exhibition curator Stuart Allan with the development of the exhibition Waterloo: After the Battle. Although I realised that I was not going to see the final product, I was excited to be part of its step by step development. Topic choice, theme development, object choice and handling, conservation and photography, text creation, case design – so much to learn from.

Stuart was keen for me to have my own research project, which would feature in the exhibition, and for me to present my results. Because of my interest in literary studies, I decided to combine two methodologies: material culture and literary reception. I focused on two themes the exhibition would introduce: Battlefield Tourism and the Celebrations at Home.

1816 print of the battle by Robert Bowyer
1816 print of the battle by Robert Bowyer.

We started by searching the catalogues for objects related to Waterloo and by investigating the stories attached to them. Reading army rolls, regimental histories, books about Waterloo and daily newspapers from 1815 at the National Library of Scotland, their stories slowly came to life. These provided an insight into what happened at Waterloo, who fought, survived and died there. They showed who visited the battlefield as tourists and why. They revealed how the veteran regiments who returned to Scotland were greeted by the public. Together with Walter Scott’s travel journal and poem, and accounts of visits to the battlefield, these objects and their stories cast light on what the battle meant to people in Scotland.

1819 print of the battle, after the painting by Alexander Sauerweid.
1819 print of the battle, after the painting by Alexander Sauerweid.

Stuart announced that I would present ‘Battlefield Tourism at Waterloo’ in a research seminar. I was frightened! The idea of talking in front of strangers who knew the subject much better than I did, did not fill me with confidence. Only later I realised that this was an important opportunity to show what I had achieved during my internship.

With the seminar fast approaching, I compiled all my knowledge into a talk. I hoped it would interest people enough to ask questions afterwards. At the same time, I dreaded those questions. After all, I was only an intern and my knowledge on the subject was limited.

Fortunately, the seminar went well. Many questions were asked that I was unable to answer. But I realised that there is no shame in saying ‘I don’t know’. If anything, questions open up new areas for research to be answered. And who knows, maybe after finishing my degree, I will do just that.

Waterloo: After the Battle will open at the National Museum of Scotland on 14 May 2015.

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