Jacobites – A #ScottishMuseumsDay pop-up

Weronika Aleksander writes about her experience at her first SMF Pop-up event, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites, at National Museums Scotland on #ScottishMuseumsDay. 

As I joined the Scottish Museums Federation quite recently, Tuesday the 3rd of October (which happened to be the Scottish Museums Day) was my first opportunity to go to an SMF event. I travelled to Edinburgh to attend the SMF Pop-Up event: Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites at the National Museum of Scotland.

© National Museums Scotland

We were warmly welcomed by Christine McLean, the Community Engagement Manager at the museum. As it was my first event of this type I did not know what to expect and I was positively surprised. We proceeded to a learning centre and gathered around a table where we were soon joined by Maureen Barrie who is an Exhibitions Officer at the museum. The atmosphere was quite informal and we got to hear from Maureen about her work behind the exhibition.

Having seen the exhibition already just after it opened in June I found it extremely interesting to listen to the story of how it was put together. Facing probably more challenges than the Jacobites themselves, everyone who worked on the exhibition did a fantastic job. The whole idea of devoting a special exhibition to Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites was a mental challenge. One of the major tasks of the curators was to explain a very complicated narrative spanning several centuries and keep it clear and attractive to the visitors. In a nutshell the story can be summed in five points – one dynasty, two courts, three kingdoms, four kings, and five challenges.

© National Museums Scotland
© National Museums Scotland

Bearing in mind that Charles Edward Steward only came into the picture at the very end of the Jacobite period it was important to present the story in a chronological and logical order. Nevertheless the exhibition begins with the prince whose charisma made him an extremely popular figure (but also controversial). In a way he still lives in popular imagination. The very first room is a perfect example of his long-lasting popularity. Upon entering the visitor can hear the Skye Boat Song, and look Bonnie Prince Charlie in the eye. The painting by John Pettie does not depict an actual historical event, but a scene featuring the prince from Sir Walter Scott’s book Waverley. The instantly recognizable Skye Boat Song was written to a traditional Scottish melody by an Englishman Sir Harold Boulton, more than a hundred years after the battle of Culloden. The image and the song are just two examples of the impact that the Jacobites had on the art and culture. Bonnie Prince Charlie and the events leading to the Culloden fire people’s imagination to this day.

After hearing from Maureen we entered the exhibition. As it is often the case, the smallest or most unassuming items have often a powerful story to tell. I definitely saw some of the displayed objects in a new light.

© National Museums Scotland
© National Museums Scotland

In places admittedly the exhibition is text-dense, however this was unavoidable in order to convey the story accurately. Out of over 300 objects some illustrate the key historical moments, others are fantastic pieces of material culture which were used or worn by the Jacobites themselves or were otherwise inspired by the Jacobite cause.

One of the details I found particularly intriguing was the layout of Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye on the floor in one of the rooms. Together with the portraits of the family members of the exiled James II, and a short film about their life at the château they give a sense how the court in France functioned as an actual royal court.

© National Museums Scotland
© National Museums Scotland

All the films displayed in several of the rooms are very well done. The film about the aftermath of Culloden is very emotional and quite unique. Rather than showing a battle re-enactment it talks about the people who were left behind, the wives and the children of those who died fighting. To see such an approach in the context of an 18th century battle is unusual, perhaps a little unsettling, but surely one of the most memorable bits of the exhibition.

Perhaps some visitors might be confused at times as there is no clear indication about the chronological order within each room. For instance the timeline goes either from left to right or the other way round in some of the rooms. This is just a minor detail, as the exhibition of this size requires time to absorb the information. If you want to have a quick look through you might miss out on chronology, however if you have more than half an hour you will definitely get your head around the content.


Jacobites exhibition-14
© National Museums Scotland

The exhibition goes way beyond dry facts, dates and battles. It shows the major events of the Jacobite rebellions divided into 5 challenges in a very approachable way and debunks some popular misconceptions. The most successful aspect of the Bonnie Prince and the Jacobites exhibition was the public and private lives of the Old Pretender and his two sons. I really enjoyed the glimpse into the lives of the’ kings over the water’ before and after the 1745 rebellion and it was a good opportunity to learn more about the people who supported their cause.

© National Museums Scotland
© National Museums Scotland

Overall I had very nice day at the exhibition, and I will be looking forward to future SMF events.

Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites is on at the National Museums of Scotland until 12th November 2017. More information can be found here.

Many thanks to National Museums Scotland for accommodating us on the day and for supplying images to use with this blog. 

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