About the Author: Douglas E. Morris serves as the Tri-Missions newsletter editor in the Community Liaison Office at the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels.
We all have hobbies, from collecting stamps and baseball cards, to pursuing creative endeavors, playing sports, or crafting unique items. Rarely, however, does a hobby leave the safe and secluded confines of one's personal life and enter the world stage, as has been the case with David Kay's chosen pastime.
A management officer with the State Department working at the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels, Mr. Kay has been an avid military modeler since his early twenties. It all started while he was serving in the Army as medical staff. When he was on call many long nights, instead of spending that downtime shooting the breeze, watching TV, or listening to the radio, Mr. Kay started collecting Revolutionary War miniatures.
“In time, my hobby became more sophisticated,” he explains. “My plan was to use them as visual aids while teaching history -- a career path that never panned out as I stayed in the military for 20 years, and eventually found my way into the Foreign Service.”
Over the years, Mr. Kay has collected miniature soldiers from many different eras, researching their historical context, and applying that knowledge with detailed hand-painting. Lugging his entire collection around the world has proven impossible because of its scale. However, prior to his arrival in Brussels, Mr. Kay had the foresight to bring along 7,000 of his Napoleonic-era military figures with him.
“What better place than Belgium,” he reasoned, “where the famous battle of Waterloo occurred back in 1815, to work on this part of my collection?”
Some might consider this Lilliputian hobby of his a rather odd obsession. But the Wellington Museum in Waterloo, Belgium -- the official repository of information, artifacts, and memorabilia relating to the battle of Waterloo, and probably the premier museum of its kind in the world -- considers Mr. Kay's hobby neither an obsession nor peculiar, but, rather, something worthy of public and academic attention.
The connection between the Wellington Museum and Mr. Kay was made shortly after his arrival in Brussels. To gather information for this part of his collection -- details such as the colors of specific uniforms and the physical layout of the battlefield -- Mr. Kay visited the museum, where he got to talking with the museum director, Colette LaMarche.
The result of that chance meeting was an offer to Mr. Kay to set up a diorama using his Napoleonic-era figurines in the museum. Designed to be an integral part of a special program at the Wellington Museum called "Waterloo -- the Big and Small Story," Mr. Kay's figures are presently on display and will grace the museum through January 2011.
“Mr. Kay's display is quite impressive,” LaMarche said. “We are sure that it will help the battle, and its important moment in European history, come alive for the viewing public.”
The diorama is so realistic that you can almost hear the canons roar, the sabers clash, and the wounded cry out. The scale-model display illustrates the battle as it took place between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. on June 18, 1815: the deciding moment for Wellington's allied line, just as the last massive, but eventually futile, French cavalry charges ended. The entire battle hung in the balance at that moment. Napoleon still had the chance to break through before the Prussians won the day. That tension and anticipation clearly come through in the display.
While engaging the viewing public, Mr. Kay's diorama is also drawing academic interest; even more so since the grand opening ceremony was attended by the descendants of Napoleon himself, as well as descendants of some of his generals. History professors are also poring over the details of his diorama, holding it to standards far above those of casual hobbyists.
Mr. Kay's impressive diorama is also playing a small part in the diplomatic relations between the United States and Belgium. His efforts represent a cultural and intellectual exchange outside normal diplomatic channels and foster better understanding between the two countries.
After Brussels, Mr. Kay plans to continue his hobby by expanding his set of American Civil War miniatures to 15,000 so that he can put together large-scale, battle-by-battle recreations of the top 25 major engagements of the that war. Using these models, he intends to present a formal proposal to the U.S. National Park Service and the National Archives to have these dioramas become part of battlefield guides helping to enhance the public's understanding of the respective engagements.
After his success with the Wellington Museum, he is clearly ready to take his hobby to even greater heights.