13th Report - Lessons from the First World War Centenary Contents

1The arts and commemorations

5.Our evidence indicates that 14–18 NOW, the Government-funded arts programme for the centenary commemorations, was a huge success. The evaluation report for the programme notes “the conjoining of contemporary arts with heritage is not new but the scale and ambition of this undertaking was ground-breaking”.6 The programme reached 35 million people across the UK, including 8 million people under 25, and featured 107 projects producing 269 new artworks in 220 locations across the UK.7

6.The Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red commission by Historical Royal Palaces, comprising 888,246 red ceramic poppies, became an iconic symbol of the centenary. After their initial display at the Tower of London in 2014, where they were viewed by an estimated 5 million people,8 two of the sculptures were then toured by 14–18 NOW to 19 locations across the UK where they were viewed by a further 4.5 million people.9 The sculptures were used by several locations as anchors for further commemorative activities10 and to secure volunteer participation.11 The popularity of the poppies commission means that “large-scale commemoration is now an established expectation of the Tower of London and has proven a highly effective way of engaging the UK domestic audiences with this heritage site and in remembrance”.12

7.Research undertaken by think tank British Future found that while the public recognise “the foundational importance of “the world wars” in shaping our society”,13 for most people this was combined with a very low level of knowledge about the First World War. They found: “more people thought Britain had declared war in 1914 over the invasion of Poland than Belgium, for example, though many more still simply did not know”.14 The arts approach to the commemorations proved to be an effective way to bridge this knowledge gap. The submission from Ivybridge Community Arts reflected similar sentiments in many of the local projects that submitted evidence to our inquiry:

We were constantly surprised by our findings during our research. We discovered that most of us knew very little about the Great War. We had heard the names of the better-known battles but, beyond that, few of us had much inkling about the conditions for the troops, the way of life, the impact on families, the massive numbers involved and the effect on the local community of 100 years ago.15

8.Ros Kerslake, Chief Executive of the National Heritage Lottery Fund, commented that although the funder substantially increased the amount of money they put towards centenary projects there is still an ongoing appetite amongst the public to learn more. She said: “we are still getting people coming in to us now with projects that they want to take forward”.16

9.Linked to relatively low levels of public awareness is the contested “cultural memory” of the war. Prior to the start of the commemorations the then Education Secretary Rt Hon Michael Gove MP commented:

The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles—a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite… [however] Historians have skilfully demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.17

10.The then Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt responded that this was framing the war “as a simplistic, nationalistic triumph” and suggested “anniversary events need to reflect and embrace the multiple histories that the war evinces—from the Royal British Legion to the National Union of Railwaymen to the Indian, Ethiopian and Australian servicemen fighting for the empire”.18 The Arts and Humanities Research Council noted that the arts offer a way to sensitively deal with contested histories and acknowledge the widespread view “that the war is ‘owned’ by the public”.19

11.Our evidence demonstrates that communities interpreted the events of the war in their own ways, rather than necessarily following well-rehearsed arguments about the motivations and legacy of the conflict. As well as the high-profile 14–18 NOW commissions we received evidence about a host of arts commissions happening at a local level. For example, the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall partnered with WildWorks theatre company to create an immersive promenade event honouring the 53 men who died in three neighbouring parishes. They said of the commemoration: “this became not just new, first-hand knowledge, but unforgettable living experience that can now be reported and handed down”.20

12.Three-quarters of the population supported use of the arts in commemorations,21 with higher approval ratings for some of the specific commissions in the programme.22 There is also evidence that people who engaged with the centenary through the 14–18 NOW programme were more likely to feel that the War was relevant to them than people who engaged in other ways.23 Perhaps the extent to which the arts programme was embedded in the centenary commemorations is best summed up by the former Prime Minister’s Special Representative for the Centenary Commemoration of the First World War, Rt Hon Dr Andrew Murrison MP, who told us:

I think we have inculcated a sense of the importance of art and culture. It would be inconceivable that we mounted this sort of commemoration in the future without having arts and culture as an intrinsic part of the fabric. People will think, “Golly, that is a little bit odd,” if we do not have that cultural wraparound.24

13.However, it is important to note that the emphasis on the arts was not at the expense of more traditional approaches to commemoration. For example, while the Pages of the Sea commission took place on 11 November 2018, this was “a partner” rather than an alternative to the traditional ceremonies happening at the Cenotaph and other war memorials.25 Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, Sir Anthony Seldon, noted the importance of keeping “these memorials in towns and villages and cities around the country a focus for activity”.26

14.We heard that the refurbishment of the Imperial War Museum’s First World War galleries was a central plank of the centenary commemorations.27 Imperial War Museums Director General Diane Lees suggested that traditional, museum-led approaches to commemorations have benefitted from the broader audiences that the cultural programme was able to reach:

The traditional approach is to do a very nice exhibition and to do the big state commemorations. I think what has resonated with audiences that are not traditional audiences to either of those occasions, to enable them to participate, has been because of the success of the programme that has been wrapped around it and the risks that have been taken in that programme.28

15.The centenary demonstrated widespread public support for, and pride in, the UK’s arts-based approach to commemorations. While the UK had already had notable success with the Cultural Olympiad, the level of public interest in commissions such as Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red demonstrate that the appetite for these activities continues to grow. The arts are a core part of our national life. It is vital that, as the commemorations draw to a close, the momentum and learning generated are not lost. It is our intention that this report serves as a resource for future commemorations, but this is not a substitute for thorough recording and dissemination of the learnings from the UK’s approach to marking the First World War centenary. In its response to this report, the DCMS should outline the steps that they are taking to document and preserve our position as an international leader in large, participatory cultural programmes.


6 Morris Hargreaves Mcintyre 14–18 NOW: Summary of evaluation April 2019

7 14–18 NOW [WWO073] paras 3–5

8 Historic Royal Palaces [WWO112] para 3.1

10 For example, Culture Liverpool organised a full education and participation programme on the city’s role in the war during the period that the poppies were on display in the city [WWO044] para 8

11 14–18 NOW [WWO073] para 46

12 Historic Royal Palaces [WWO112] para 1

13 British Future [WWO113] para 2

14 Ibid

15 [WWO003] para 4

16 Q49

19 First World War Engagement Centres [WWO121] para 1.1

20 The Lost Gardens of Heligan and Travaux Sauvages Ltd t/a WildWorks [WWO105] para 31

21 British Future [WWO113] para 6

22 14–18 NOW [WWO073] para 29

23 14–18 NOW [WWO073] para 33

24 Q64

26 Q24

27 Imperial War Museums additional further supplementary evidence [WWO071] para 7

28 Q11




Published: 16 July 2019