Lest we forget: poppies and public commemoration

Lead Research Organisation: Historic Royal Palaces
Department Name: Tower of London


At the centenary of 2014, 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' became the surprising star of commemorative activity. This art installation of 888,246 comprised ceramic poppies, planted in undulating waves in the Tower of London moat. Its popularity showed that far from declining, World War I (WWI) commemoration was still intensely popular with the British public. 'Lest we forget' is an innovative project which will use new methodologies to probe a unique and large data set which was collected as part of the installation, and thus to investigate how people made sense of, and engaged with, it. The project will contextualize the installation by explaining the ways in which the public(s) commemorated the First World War more widely, building on a century of WWI historiography and looking at commemoration in a 21st century context. Finally, it will look at whether any other project could achieve public impact comparable to that of 'Blood Swept Lands', and if so, how this might be achieved.

Each of the 888,246 ceramic poppies in the installation was created to represent a single life; or rather a death. The number of ceramic poppies and the scale of the installation were its defining features both in terms of the spectacle it created in the moat, but also in the meanings people made of the artwork. Volunteers, staff, visitors and purchasers frequently referred to the emotional significance of 'one poppy, one life'. Each handmade poppy embodied individuality within the conformity which is associated with military service in WWI. No two poppies were the same, connecting the individuality of the dead combatants with the horrifying scale of the war.

This project looks beyond the spectacle of 'Blood Swept Lands'. It uses the installation as a case study through which some of the wider issues of WWI commemoration can be understood. It will look at how the public made sense of the WWI centenary, and how they used the installation to create meanings, express emotions, and share these with a wider group of people. It will then explore the ways in which people interacted with 'Blood Swept Lands' through different media; from volunteering to 'plant' poppies, visiting the installation, sharing photographs on social media, and depositing home-made artefacts at the Tower; to attending a nightly roll-call ceremony, or buying a ceramic poppy. The public engaged with the installation on multiple levels, and the levels of public involvement also helped shape the installation and its project, which became a media phenomenon. This research project will investigate the importance of this engagement; it will also critique the way the project was perceived as a 'success' by the public, media and Historic Royal Palaces. It will achieve this by using data collected as part of the Blood Swept Lands project, and applying methodologies from other disciplines to probably the largest data set of commemorative activity available for research.

It is timely to study the impact of 'Blood Swept Lands' and its place within WWI centenary commemorations as the 2014-18 centenary draws to a close in 2018. Further fieldwork in 2018 will look at the longer term impact of the 2014 commemorations, and ask whether and how attitudes to 'Blood Swept Lands' and commemoration have changed over the 4 years, 2014-18. The research will explore what constituted the 'success' of 'Blood Swept Lands' and whether this success can be replicated in future commemorations and commemorative programmes.

'Lest we forget' will disseminate its research findings through conference papers and published journal articles. It will bring together heritage practitioners and academics from history, heritage, and memory studies in order to share and discuss future engagement with commemoration in heritage and museums. It will deliver public impact through regular blog posts, public talks and a Teacher Fellowship programme, resulting in 10 new free teacher resources.

Planned Impact

1. Education and schools. 'Lest we forget' will deliver a Continuing Professional Development programme for 10 outstanding secondary school teachers. They will participate in a 4-month course of teaching and research based on the findings of this project. It will culminate in the production of 10 new classroom teaching resources to be used in classrooms and published online. Teaching Fellows will also become advocates for these resources. The PDRA will project manage and lead on development of the programme which will be delivered in Jan-Apr 2019 in partnership with the Historical Association (HA). The programme will lead to the publication of 10 teacher-authored resources on the HRP, HA, and Times Educational supplement websites in Jun 2019. The LF and PDRA will also write an article for the 'Teaching History' journal, whose audience is secondary history teachers, to be published in Jun 2019.

2. Adults and community groups. HRP has a programme of public talks and lectures within its Uncover adult learning programme. The LF and PDRA will work with this team to develop and deliver a series of 3 online podcasts based on the research findings. The podcasts will be published on iTunes, Soundcloud and A Cast, where they will be accessible and available for 5 years. The Uncover team will convene a Curious Connections event with the LF and PDRA as part of a panel discussion on poppies and public commemoration. The LF and PDRA will also deliver talks to HRP's Members on different facets of the research. In order to target local community groups, the adult learning team will host a training event based on the 'Lest we forget' research for community group leaders. This will enable leaders to have the confidence to bring groups of elderly participants, or those with dementia to the Tower, and engage them in meaningful discussions relating to commemoration. The LF and PDRA will work with the L&E and HRP social media teams to reach online audiences through regular tweets and blog posts relating to the research and highlighting new findings. In order to reach general audiences in print, the LF and PDRA will also author a short article for publication in the popular history publication, 'BBC History Magazine'.

3. Cultural policy and professional practice. Funding bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England have been behind much of the centenary commemorations on behalf of the UK government, and are undertaking evaluation of the public impact and cost effectiveness of these activities. 'Lest we forget' will produce high quality research to complement these evaluations, and delve further into the academic debates in heritage and museum studies such as public expectations of commemorative exhibitions and installations, and methods for reflecting community voices in commemoration. A collaborative symposium at the end of this project will bring together funders, academics and heritage practitioners to review what constituted success for WWI commemorative activities, and look forward by thinking about public policy and funding decisions for future commemorations, such as World War II. Nearly every museum and heritage site in the UK was affected by the WWI centenary commemorations. At the close of the centenary, many institutions, including the Imperial War Museum, are already considering how to approach the next major war commemoration. Sector professionals are looking for evidence as to how to engage their public(s) successfully and meaningfully, at which interpretative forms have the greatest learning impact for visitors, and how to engage in online interaction. The LF and PDRA will co-author an article in sector publication 'Museums Journal' to reach practitioners and peers. Delegates at the symposium will be able to locate their practice within academic frameworks, learn from peers in the sector, and build new and ongoing networks for thinking critically about engaging with commemoration effectively.


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