Edwell, Penny: Review note: First World War Commemoration and Memory Conference, IWM North

Penny Edwell*

‘Review note: First World War Commemoration and Memory Conference, IWM North’, Honest History, 17 March 2016

Organised by the Imperial War Museum North Postgraduate and Early Career Researchers Network (FWW Network), the First World War: Commemoration and Memory conference aimed to explore ‘how and why the First World War is commemorated, remembered and understood at this important 100-year juncture’. This international conference, held on 26-27 February at IWM North in Manchester, brought together academic speakers, representatives from heritage agencies, community groups, individuals and museums for a variety of perspectives on the way the Great War is and has been commemorated. Tweets were at #fwwcm16.

The program was diverse and inspired many passionate discussions online and in the venue during the two days. A busy agenda included lunchtime art displays and performances as well as presentation stands from organisations such as the National Archives and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Here’s a small sample of the program (that I was able to attend) that demonstrates the variety of work and academic research underway on the commemoration of the First World War. You can explore the full program online.

northIWM North, Manchester

Hannah Smyth (University of Oxford) spoke about her early PhD research into World War memorials on the Western Front and what they indicate about the reshaping of relationships between Britain and her dominions. Conference organiser Dr Nick Mansfield (University of Central Lancashire) gave a great paper exploring the connections between World War I and previous conflicts that had also been known as ‘Great Wars’.

Dr Jenny MacLeod’s (University of Hull) paper compared the national commemorative activities for the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign across Turkey, Australia and New Zealand, using figures from Honest History. Dr Joel Morley (University of Essex) spoke about ‘Veterans’ narratives in interwar Britain’ and how the selective passing of stories from the veterans was an important element in the understanding and interpretation of the Great War. A roundtable discussion with a mix of representatives from university and local history projects, as well as the Heritage Lottery Fund, explored collaborative commemorative projects, their challenges and benefits.

The three keynotes all delivered thought-provoking talks on the centenary.

Dr Helen McCartney’s (Kings College) paper was titled ‘The First World War in 2014-2015: new commemoration projects, new public narratives?’ Dr McCartney explored this question through two popular commemorative projects – the Tower of London Poppies installation and the Letter to the Unknown Soldier. The large-scale public interaction with these two projects indicates that new narratives are being explored and that, alongside the more established ‘futility script’, an opposing ‘sacrificial script’ is appearing that stresses the debt owed for ‘freedom’ today.

Dr McCartney observed that within these commemorative projects there was a lack of a global perspective and that emotionalism and personalisation appear to be driving current interpretations of the war. As with many commemorative activities, Dr McCartney noted that empathetic and emotional approaches to commemoration are helping to shape emerging scripts and addressed the issue that neither the ‘futility’ script narrative nor the ‘sacrificial’ script narrative are rooted in a complex understanding of the war. The question we are left with, I suppose, is whether or not that matters.

Professor Jay Winter’s (Yale University) timely keynote ‘Remembering the Great War: a trans-national approach’ somewhat continued on from Dr McCartney’s lecture when he said of the centenary commemorations, ‘We swim in a tide we neither created nor direct’. Professor Winter’s address noted the significance of public history in the creation of a commemorative landscape and the need for academics to work with public history.

Professor Winter also spoke about the ‘memory boom’ and its connection to the secularisation of Western society, saying we now encounter the sacred in sites of memory. He drew on his experience working on the design of the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Peronne, France, to talk about the ‘geometry of memory’ where verticality is the optimistic language of hope and horizontality is the language of mourning. (You can read more on this principle in this article from Professor Winter.)

At the core of Professor Winter’s keynote was a discussion about the need for trans-national perspectives of the Great War, particularly in light of the fact that the war was the first, biggest trans-national moment in history. He stressed that with the trans-national approach identities not identity is key, saying ‘we must resist the national’. While this approach is already established, it is under threat – and the centenary of the war is contributing to this with commemoration trends falling back into the national. In light of recent events and debates around migration and the refugee crisis, Winter stressed that there is something immediate and important about trans-national history right now.

Professor Maggie Andrews (University of Worcester) was the final keynote of the conference with her paper titled ‘Gendering remembrance: the home front in contemporary media and community engagement with the First World War’. Professor Andrews spoke about the feminisation and domestication of remembrance through increasingly local interpretations of the war and asked whether this represents a democratisation of remembrance or a sanitisation of the horrors of war.

787px-CAM_HistorialHistorial de la Grande Guerre, Peronne (Wikimedia Commons/DestinationHauteSomme)

Professor Andrews’ talk also brought up some of the challenges she has experienced as an academic working with community groups and she noted the difficulty of memory and history engaging with each other, of academic rigour working alongside democratising knowledge. She highlighted the difficulty for museums and local community groups which are forced to make history palatable in order to get funding, and noted that increasingly we seem to be remembering servicemen as fathers, sons and family members – as opposed to soldiers with guns, as killers. She finished with a pertinent quote:

As the WWI centenary reaches its mid-point there is an urgent need to ask awkward difficult questions – to consider the politics of what we are doing – to look for ways of assessing impact beyond numbers and skills – to encourage more critical interconnections between past and present and between academy and beyond.

I’ll conclude the wrap up with a thought-provoking question from Jay Winter during the conference about our own participation in the centenary as historians and academics: ’Are we actually engaging in an act of remembrance ourselves?’ Are we in fact remembrancers?

* Penny Edwell is an MA Research candidate at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.

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