In 2014 the Tower of London sparked a revolution of remembrance when it unveiled an enormous work of public art to commemorate 100 years since the start of the First World War.
888,246 handmade ceramic poppies standing in the fortress moat, so many they tumbled out of ramparts and windows. Each one representing a member of the British and Colonies military who’d died in the First World War. It was called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (also known as Poppies at the Tower) and it changed everything.
I was working for Historic Royal Palaces (the organisation that looks after Tower of London) when the Poppies were being planned and believe me; it was a gamble!
The Tower of London is steeped in military history, with its famous Yeoman Warders (beefeaters) all ex military. The Tower was always going to remember those that had fallen, but what would be the public’s reaction? Would people come? Would poppies be ridiculed?
Not to mention that poppies was going to be a very costly endeavour and if it failed, then what did that mean for future projects?
It didn’t fail.
Millions of people came to see the poppies. So many that London Underground had to put in place tannoy announcements advising people to plan alternate routes, as the tube stations by Tower of London were so packed.
Almost 18,000 volunteers worked to plant all of the poppies. At nightfall, a roll-call of the fallen was read out to a silent crowd as The Last Post was played. The Royal Family came, with the Queen planting one of the poppies. The prime minister urged the Tower to keep the poppies for longer. And when the final day of the exhibition came, each poppy was sold to the public, raising millions for military charities.
But the most remarkable thing about the Poppies was the effect it had on everyone who saw it. At first you’d look at one poppy; a particular patch. But it soon became impossible to see that one poppy, as it was eclipsed by the vastness of red. Lost in a sea of the dead.
It was both the individual loss and the mass mourning. It was visceral. You could feel it. And you couldn’t leave and still view the First World War in the same way.
Blood Swept Land and Seas made the front pages of newspapers. It was the first story on the news. History… the main news story.
What was normally reserved for 1 day a year, remembrance day, was now the UK’s water cooler talk.
Let’s not understate this, because it’s INCREDIBLE!
But why was this? Well it was because it showed history in a new light.
Kings and Queens are great. The stories of lost empires are great. The nitty gritty of tanks and military plans are great. But this wasn’t that. It was people. Everyday people, their story. And that’s something else entirely.
There was an increase in people looking into their family history, discovering their link to this era.
It built a bridge between a time that seemed far away and showed it as relevant, our ties to the past as strong as ever.
Soon Blood Swept Land and Seas went on tour and everywhere it went to saw increased visitors. And I’m not talking a slight bump, I’m talking an increase of over 1000%.
This new style of mass remembrance didn’t stop with the poppies.
Arts programme, 14-18 Now, devised a series of events, running from 2014-2018, to commentate 100 years since The First World War.
Perhaps the most incredible was 2016s, ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’ which marked 100 years since The Somme. Young men, dressed as WW1 soldiers, each one representing a soldier who died in the battle, descended on Britain’s cities. They sang a trench favourite ‘we’re here because we’re here’, before falling into silence and passing out the individual details of the soldiers they portrayed.
Once more the display created national interest. Once more the individual loss was the focal point.
So what does this new form of mass remembrance mean for history?
Well, for one thing it shows that people are really interested in history. Fantastic!
But more importantly, it shows that we can stretch the boundaries when it comes to telling history.
During the commemoration of 100 years since the First World War, it was not the conventional history telling that resonated. The template exhibitions, documentaries and books were all there, but they weren’t what captured the imagination.
And this tells us 2 things key things:
1 . People are interested in history, but not always the kind of history we’re selling. This is a great opportunity to take chances! For example we can look to how 14-18 Now and The Tower of London have done an amazing job with merging history. And it doesn’t stop there. This is a chance for us to explore the boundaries of how we tell history!
Exhibitions that blend experience with archival objects, and play with the perimeters of written word and visuals. Books that embrace new narrative and language styles. The expansion of documentary formats into podcasts and YouTube. There is a whole world of opportunity out there, just waiting to be pioneered.
2 . People are interested in people. I know this may seem obvious! But I think the popularity of these projects shows us that there is a lot of room to build upon, when it comes to telling what we may have previously thought of as, everyday mundane stories.
When we look at battles we either tell the story as a whole or pick out one incredibly notable person. A leader, a saviour, a hero. But its clear that people also want to hear about the average Joe. The people with normal lives and jobs, thrown into these unimaginable situations.
If it was a choice between watching an hour long documentary on the Battle of the Somme or an hour long documentary on what happened to 5 different people during that battle… I know the one I’d watch.