The commemoration industry is one that is rapidly gaining traction in the twenty-first century - it seems that every year is a significant anniversary of some period in history or another. 2014-2018 was a four-year period commemorating the duration of the First World War, 2017 marked 500 years since Martin Luther’s 95 theses, and 2019 noted fifty years since the Moon Landing, to name but a few. With such a vast expanse of historical events to choose from, nearly every date could be designated a commemorative day for something. Yet it is governments, institutions, and historians who are the driving forces behind choosing what is actively remembered.
The events that are usually chosen are ones typically that dominate public interests and memories. They are familiar, and thus money-spinners. Collective remembrance can give a boost to media production, i.e. films and documentaries, but also in the number of books that are published. During the period 2014-2018, the BBC produced over 130 programmes across TV and radio as a part of the centenary commemorations, and many more books and articles were published too.
Beyond the mainstream, there is a growing system to commemorate underrepresented histories, primarily through a programme of commemorative months, such as Black History Month (February USA and Canada, October UK), LGBTQ History Month (February UK, October USA and Canada), and Women’s History Month (March USA and UK, October Canada). These months have been specifically outlined to highlight the histories of minority groups, placing them in the spotlight for a concentrated period of time. Accompanied again by dedicated programmes, conferences, and events, these Heritage months act as a catalyst for conversations, as well as highlighting the continuing lack of diversity in the histories that are studied and popularised.
Commemoration brings people in contact with the past when they otherwise would not have done so. It provides a framework to mark time passing but also to learn and pay respects to the lives of those who have come before us. Yet it is still largely bound to national history and each country will commemorate their own significant events - very few people in the UK would even be aware of Bastille Day in France. There is a danger of commemorations projecting an overly sanitised view of the past, with nationalist leaning tendencies and the glorification of horrors in the name of heroism. To move forward in this culture of commemoration, there needs to be more active, critical thinking, as with the Heritage months, on a global scale, and in concert with historians. Commemoration requires performance, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t serve an educational purpose.