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The significance of the centenary

What does the nature of a centenary commemoration tell us about collective memory and current social attitudes? How have commemorations changed over time? What are the most appropriate ways to handle the remembrance of traumatic or politically sensitive events?

These are just some of the questions explored by ‘The Significance of the Centenary’, an AHRC-funded research network, which comes under the ‘Care for the Future: Thinking Forward Through the Past’ umbrella.

It’s an especially timely project given that this year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, and commemorations will need to strike a balance between popular interpretations of the events: a ‘just’ war in the context of its time; the tragic waste of life portrayed in the poetry of Owen and Sassoon; or the shambles depicted in the satirical TV programme Blackadder.

The network is led by the University of Birmingham in collaboration with the Universities of Cardiff and Sheffield, the National Library of Wales, and Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity looking after sites such as the Tower of London and Hampton Court.

A series of workshops, beginning in April 2013, have brought academics together with practitioners from the museum and heritage sector. The first two workshops focused on comparative studies of centenaries throughout history, ranging from the centenary of the Mexican revolution, events marking the work of Jane Austen, to the hundredth anniversary of Swansea Football Club.

“We tried to draw up a framework for investigating the significance of a centenary,” explains Dr Joanne Sayner, Senior Lecturer in cultural theory at the University of Birmingham and the project’s leader. “Are people trying to convey a message through it? Are certain voices more prominent than others? What role do groups such as lobbyists and fan clubs play?”

The terminology used is important, she adds, and words such as ‘commemoration’ and ‘celebration’ can be problematic. “We prefer the term ‘centenary event’. Of course, 1918 was seen as a time of celebration, but now people feel very reticent about using that term in relation to the events. We’re trying to raise these issues and get people to think about the language they are using.”

In subsequent workshops, the network turned its attention to the First World War. Sayner and her co-investigator, Dr Jenny Kidd from Cardiff University, looked at the build up to the centenary in the media and on social media sites. “We tried to plot the changing way it was being talked about, and what role museums were being given,” she says.

Alongside this, museum staff discussed the challenges of developing large-scale exhibitions and archives, and how you measure their success, particularly given that £50m of public money has been made available for the First World War commemorations.

One of the project’s participants, Alex Drago, is a learning and engagement manager at the Historic Royal Palaces. “For us, the value of these networks is to engage with other practitioners and academics, who can inform what we do from their theoretical understanding,” he says.

Drago has been trialling various learning strategies with local schools to help a younger audience develop a greater understanding of the war centenary. One successful project involved a group of Year 7 and 8 students at The Grey Coat Hospital School, a girls’ comprehensive in Westminster. Working with history teacher Rocky Haines, art teacher Philippa Prince, and visiting animator John Harmer, the students made a short film with images and commentary on the theme of commemoration.

“The past has an impact on us today, in terms of how we react to it, interpret it, learn lessons and apply it to our lives,” says Haines. However, he adds, the purpose of the project was to encourage the students to reflect on the idea of memorialisation itself, rather than just on the events of the war. As part of their research, they examined artefacts such as war memoirs and medals, and visited the nearby Cenotaph. “They said they had walked past so many times but never really thought about what it means.”

The voiceover on the film reflects a wide range of responses from the students. One says she feels disconnected from the war as “it’s a different time,” and another says she believes it should be remembered, but as “something that never should have happened”. Another sees monuments and memorial services as a “conversation with society about remembering the war. Some people need something smaller and more intimate to respond to and some people need something big.” One girl concludes that “This is our history. We need to help people remember the past in order to live our future.”

“All those opinions have validity,” says Drago. “We are encouraging people to acknowledge that and come to terms with it in their own way.”

Another network participant, Steph Mastoris, head of Swansea’s National Waterfront Museum, agrees. “One of the things that came out of the project for me was that for a centenary event to be effective you need to allow a plurality of views. Much of the World War One commemoration will focus on local and personal stories, which sit very much within the curatorial zeitgeist as human history interpretation is central these days. But there is a bigger picture. It was the first fully mechanised war where industry was a major player and at the Waterfront Museum we’re going to look at the legacy for Welsh industry.”

The network’s final workshop, which considers how to measure the impact, legacy and success of anniversary events, takes place in May 2014. Coincidentally, it was during the planning stages for that workshop that a £10m governmental pot for celebrating significant anniversaries to be administered by the Heritage Lottery Fund was announced.

“What’s fascinating,” says Sayner, “is that ‘significant’ is yet to be defined. So it ties in perfectly with all the things we are thinking about. If you are going to celebrate or commemorate an anniversary you have to think about why it’s significant and how you are going to convey that. Then you often have to be able to measure whether it works.”

For further information, please go to the project website.

Article by Caroline Roberts

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