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Commentary: Reshaping Waterloo Volume 60 Number 1, January/February 2007
by Neil Asher Silberman

History, archaeology, and the European heritage industry


The Waterloo battlefield is dominated by the "Lion Mound," built by the Dutch in the 1820s over a stretch of Wellington's front lines. (Courtesy Neil Asher Silberman) [LARGER IMAGE]

The Waterloo battlefield's rolling landscape--dotted with antique farmhouses and planted with rye--is one of Belgium's most famous historical attractions. Every year some 300,000 visitors flock to the place where the Duke of Wellington's allied British, Dutch, and Prussian forces decisively defeated Napoleon Bonaparte's advancing armies on June 18, 1815. Located about 15 miles south of Brussels, the site of the battle that determined the fate of Europe is also the perfect vantage point from which to observe a worrisome transformation now sweeping over the European heritage scene. For beginning this spring, Waterloo is slated to undergo an extensive tourist development project in which the quest to enhance the site's entertainment value and economic potential will directly endanger the site's still-buried archaeological remains.

Interpretive messages will be made more attractive, homogenizing the older, conflicting national perspectives that seem inappropriate today. It is, after all, the Age of the European Union, when old rivalries need to be forgotten. An advisory committee of historians from all former combatant nations has been appointed to ensure that the new presentation will be impeccably balanced and fair. No gloating by winners and no recriminations by the losers will be permitted. To further emphasize the site's pan-European significance, a long "Wall of Memory" will extend from the parking lot to the new visitors' center, bearing the names of all the units from all the nations that participated in the battle, and providing a collective tribute to the 60,000 casualties.


The Waterloo visitors' center, slated for demolition, stands next to a 1912 neoclassical building housing a 360- degree panoramic painting of the battle that will remain at the site. (Courtesy Neil Asher Silberman) [LARGER IMAGE]

No doubt evenhandedness is often a virtue in public discourse, but meaningful history is not necessarily about balance and fairness. Waterloo was a brutal confrontation in which one side undoubtedly won and the other quite certainly lost. The new Waterloo presentation will take the focus off the national tensions and rivalries that motivated the 1815 battle. Instead, the facilities will stress entertainment value. The centerpiece will be a virtual-reality simulation of the battle produced through the unlikely collaboration of the advisory committee, a Brussels design-and-exhibit firm, and Italian-Belgian film director Franco Dragone, best known for his extravagant production designs for Cirque du Soleil.

It is only natural that Waterloo's public presentation be updated, but something is being lost in the process--along with irreplaceable archaeological remains. How will future generations view the irreversible changes to the site and its archaeological record that are being made today in the name of tourist development?

In the coming years, visitors may have the opportunity to learn facts and figures about the battle and enjoy new multimedia presentations. But with the large-scale reshaping of the battlefield's terrain, the construction of new facilities, and the updating of its message, the "new" Waterloo will imply as much about the present as the historical and archaeological past. Another indelible layer of commemoration will be left on the battlefield, embodying the economic needs and political sensibilities of the New Europe. It will be emphatically upbeat, politically neutral, and generically "European"--far closer to the feel-good strains of ABBA's famous Eurovision pop tune "Waterloo," than to the reality of that bloody day in 1815.

Neil Asher Silberman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America