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UK museum and heritage sites commemorate Armistice Day

Following last year’s lockdowns, several heritage attractions have announced events to mark Remembrance Day 2021

Opinion
poppies at the National Memorial Arboretum

By Rachel Mackay 

After a year of cancelled commemorative events, museums and heritage sites across the country are preparing touching and creative ways to remember the fallen this November. 

2020 was an important year for remembrance in the UK, marking 75 years since VE Day. However, the summer saw scores of cancelled events and celebrations cancelled due to the pandemic. This was swiftly followed by cancelled or scaled-down Armistice Day commemorations as many parts of the UK entered yet another lockdown.

Remembrance Day

So, it may come as no surprise that this year, the country’s museums and heritage sites are preparing to make Armistice Day 2021 something special. A whole host of events and commemorations across the country are taking place.

Remembrance at the Imperial War Museum

The IWM has an impressive track record of interrogating the very nature of remembrance in a thoughtful and sensitive way. Back in 2012, its Arts and Humanities Research Council-supported research project Whose Remembrance? sought to increase understanding of the experience of the peoples of Britain’s former empire in the two world wars. As well as developing a research database, the project led to films, documentaries, novels and plays exploring these areas further.

Building on this work on personal and cultural experiences of remembrance, this year IWM will host ‘Breaking the Silence’ events across the country.

First World War Galleries at IWM

At IWM London, at 11.02, the traditional silence will be broken by performances such as a violin recital, on an instrument made from sycamore and pine trees grown at the Western Front. There will also be a spoken-word performance from The Midi Music Company. The piece, performed by young people aged 11-15, will explore what remembrance means to them.

Meanwhile, up in IWM North, the silence will be broken with a performance that will explore remembrance and what it means to young people using video, music and movement. The performance has been produced in partnership with local theatre group ThickSkin.

Military museums hold services

Meanwhile, many museums with a close connection to the services are choosing to host services of remembrance themselves. The RAF Museum Cosford is holding a service on Remembrance Sunday, led by the RAF Cosford Station Chaplain.

“The service will include readings and the sounding of ‘The Last Post’, followed by two minutes of silence,” says the museum. “Wreaths will be laid by representatives from RAF Cosford, RAF Museum staff and volunteers in honour of those who have fallen in the line of duty.”

Remembrance RAF cosford
A remembrance service at RAF Cosford. Image courtesy of RAF Cosford

The service is free to attend, but visitors must pre-book online.

Other military museums are seeking to explore remembrance further with a series of events. The National Army Museum is running a whole variety of experiences on Remembrance Sunday. There will be accessible archives focussing on soldiers’ experiences, music with the Chelsea Pensioners and talks exploring the history of the Royal British Legion. Again, entry is free but visitors must book in advance.

Down in Portsmouth, the National Museum of the Royal Navy is hosting special events exploring the wartime role of the Navy, through pop-up stands in its galleries. Poems and stories from naval personnel will feature heavily, inviting visitors to “hear their words and see conflict through their eyes”.

Art as remembrance

At Hampton Court Palace, Historic Royal Palaces have commissioned a new artwork. This seeks to remember and commemorate those who have lost their lives in conflict.

The piece includes silhouettes of more than 100 soldiers, including images of the Indian soldiers that camped in Home Park, Hampton Court after the First World War. A specially developed guide will share these stories, available at the Hampton Court Ticket Office.

Indian troops at Hampton Court
Indian Troops at Hampton Court, 1919. Image courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces

The new installation is in partnership with Standing with Giants, a community-based art installation formed by Oxfordshire artist Dan Barton and a dedicated group of local volunteers. It will run throughout November.

Up in Scotland, families also have the chance to connect to remembrance through art. They can do this by making their own clay poppies at the Black Watch Museum in Perth. The museum hopes the activity will help visitors “find out why the poppy has become a symbol of remembrance”.

Wartime Heritage

The Cenotaph in London
The Cenotaph War Memorial in Whitehall, London.

Finally, many of the UK’s heritage sites have their own special connection to wartime heritage. Some are opening up these stories for visitors to explore this Armistice day.

For example, English Heritage’s Marble Hill House served as a bomb shelter during the First World War. Marble Hill has invited members to attend the site’s remembrance event and silence on 11 November. Then one of the site’s volunteers will lead a landscape walk. Visitors will be able to explore the bomb sites and exact location of the bomb shelter as well as the allotments and wider landscape.

English Heritage also manages many wartime monuments including the Cenotaph in Whitehall; the focus of the UK’s official Remembrance Sunday commemorative event. Whilst visitors cannot go inside the Cenotaph, English Heritage has produced an extensive history online.

So, whether it’s providing a place to remember friends and family, exploring the nature of remembrance, uncovering hidden histories or finding out more about the wartime heritage of familiar places, museums and heritage sites are putting their best foot forward to inspire and support collective remembrance this November.

Top image: poppies at the National Memorial Arboretum

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Rachel Mackay

Rachel Mackay manages Historic Royal Palaces at Kew, looking after four historic sites including Kew Palace. In 2020, she created The Recovery Room (therecoveryroomblog.com) to share research and resources as the museum sector recovers from the impact of the pandemic. She was recently named one of Blooloop’s top 50 museum influencers.

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