Ahead of Waterloo’s bicentenary in June 2015, a new £20million visitor centre for the site was announced. I had always wanted to visit Waterloo, so this seemed like the perfect time.
This blog will share my experience of the four main sites – the Lion’s Mound, Panorama, 1815 Museum and Hougoumont.
The Lion’s Mound
Built in 1823, this monument to the wounded Prince of Orange is a piece of history itself. The 40metre structure provides an aerial view of the battlefield. Although, as this is a nineteenth-century monument, the interpretation techniques for tourists are quite limited.
The 360-degree view of the battlefield gives a sense of the grand scale. However, the mound has altered the topography so the original landscape, to some extent, has been lost. The mound is useful in combating the problem of this location never intending to be a tourist site – the vantage point eliminates the need to walk on the battlefield, a lot of which is still farmland.
An important piece of heritage, this 12 x 110-metre fresco was painted for the centenary of the battle. Surrounding you, it allowing you to experience a key moment from within the heart of the battle.
The Memorial 1815 Museum
This museum is a 1,815 metre squared space built underground in order to preserve the battlefield and surrounding farmland. It effectively uses audio guides, paintings, timelines, maps, video, artefacts, wax figures, interactive screens and quizzes to engage and tell the story of the battle.
There is a brilliant film, sort of a modern Panorama, which immerses you into a 3D battle experience with the cavalry even appearing to charge straight at you – which is quite scary.
The museum offers far more than Waterloo – a journey from the French Revolution, through Napoleon’s rise and ultimately his defeat. This linear interpretation provides a complete history, placing the battle within its historical context. (Also, guillotines!)
The museum recognises that the battle was multinational by displaying uniforms from every army that fought and the audio guide is provided by a soldier from your chosen army. Included in the chronology are global events in the colonies and the War of 1812, giving the imperial context.
After remaining as a working farm for 200 years, Project Hougoumont was set up to manage the restoration and create a heritage site. The cost was estimated at €3.8 million and it was opened to the public ahead of the bicentenary.
Upon arriving you are taken into the barn to watch a graphic display which plays on the aspect of ‘history where it happened.’ This includes explaining the role of the farm in the battle and how the barn was set alight. It is moving to see what happened where you are sitting and it sets the tone for the rest of the visit.
The monument also plays a role in re-telling events where they happened. It features two life-sized Coldstream guards attempting to close the North gate to keep out the attacking French soldiers – a vital point in the battle. It is carefully positioned behind the North gate – simultaneously you can see the monument and the location where the actions actually took place.
Walking from the battlefield to the farm really helps you capture the scale of the conflict. Along the walk are markers with text explaining events that took place on that spot. This further contributes to the idea of history where it happened and helps you develop a connection to the history. However, this experience is lost if you take the bus to the farm.
The farm buildings are largely unchanged from the time of the battle. For the restoration, they used drawings from after the battle by the Prince Regent’s Military Artist. Hougoumont is still rural and remote, which contributes to the atmosphere. Although the forest has disappeared, three dead trees remain with bullet holes to show the damage that the weapons caused. The trees also mark the spot of the mass grave reminding us of the human cost. Plaques around the farm tell the story of individuals involved and there are loopholes within the walls to create a sense of the fighting.
I enjoyed and was moved by my visit to Waterloo, and timed my visit (September 2015) perfectly. The new additions have successfully turned Waterloo into an international heritage site, tactfully providing a global and historical context while respecting the tragic past and the working present.