By Sheila Watson
Museum and Society, Vol.4:3 (2006)
Abstract: When Admiral Lord Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 his lifetime achievements and his agonizing death elevated him to the status of a national hero. While his reputation, significance and influence have waxed and waned his importance to British national identity has rarely been questioned. When, in 2002 a new Nelson Museum was founded in Great Yarmouth, a unique opportunity was offered to examine Nelson’s contemporary influence on the public imagination and his importance in the articulation of identity, both personal and communal. The research which is reported here was undertaken in 2004 and during 2005, the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar and Nelson’s death. It focused on the key players at the museum, the founders, the Curator, volunteers and visitors, using primary source documents and qualitative interviews. The findings suggest that Nelson was, without commemorative reminders in 2004, an important symbol of identity that has for most become disassociated from his military triumphs. The bicentenary reminded people of his naval exploits and his role in the defence of Britain thus re-enforcing his importance in history. This research also suggests that for some Nelson has become symbolic of English rather than British identity.
Introduction: At the beginning of the twenty-first century the role of individuals as representatives and emblems of some elements of national identity was debated in ten BBC television programmes, Great Britons. In November and December 2001 the BBC invited people to vote for their greatest ever Briton. Subsequently in 2002 the BBC broadcast ten programmes on the top ten nominations: Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell, Isaac Newton, Horatio Nelson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, John Lennon and Diana, Princess of Wales. This paper considers the way one of these characters, Nelson, is used to articulate identity in the twenty-first century in a new museum in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, dedicated to his memory. It has been postulated that Nelson’s ‘career as a British hero…. shows few real signs of fading’. The Great Britons poll certainly appeared to confirm this, as did the nation-wide Trafalgar bicentenary events in 2005. However, the interpretation of Nelson as a hero and symbol of what ‘we most value and admire’ by the state, the public, educational establishments, museums and the media has changed over time.