“We will Remember them:” Commemoration as Public History-making

Rachel McGlone

What is commemoration?

In 2023, the UK celebrated two major milestones in our recent history - 75 years since both the founding of the NHS and the arrival of the HMT Windrush on British shores. These two events have been surrounded by publicity, with news articles, exhibitions, performances, and even parties to mark the occasion. All of these fall under the umbrella of commemoration, which is often more strategic than appears on the surface. Commemoration is a word that everyone vaguely understands, but is more nuanced than just ‘remembering.’ Commemoration is the specific act of marking an event, individual, or the history of a group of people, as a display of respect. In this way, commemoration is an active connection to the past - it requires an element of performance. Humans have engaged in commemoration for as long as there has been society - though often in different guises. Religious festivals which honoured ancestors or previous events can be interpreted as commemorative; acts of marking the passage of time and remembering those that came before us. This secularised programme of memorials is just the next step in this journey, moving the focus from familial to national. The most visible commemoration in the UK and the Commonwealth is likely Remembrance Day, marked on the Sunday closest to 11th November every year since 1919. It is a memorial for those who died in armed conflict, initially from the First World War but the Second World War and subsequent conflicts are also remembered. Participation in a two-minute pause of silence is encouraged, as is the wearing of a red poppy, and ceremonies across towns and cities involve the laying of wreaths at war memorials. It is intended to be a reflective and thoughtful occasion, though it has in recent years been criticised as performative. To those who observe, its ceremony barely deviates from year to year - how much critical thought is followed by the motions? The truth is that commemorations serve instead as a prioritised excuse to engage the public with the past. They bring historic events to the forefront of news and are effective vehicles for fundraising. The commissioning of centenary celebrations is often strategically planned around a host of interconnected events, with goals of raising education and awareness. Is it any wonder that the World Wars are two of the most popular topics for history publications - the general public encounters them every year by osmosis.
“We will Remember them:” Commemoration as Public History-making
Remembrance day at the Cenotaph, London. 11 November 2018.

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Commemoration as a contact with the past

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.
Ancestry UK
“We will Remember them:” Commemoration as Public History-making

Rachel McGlone

Rachel McGlone studied History at the University of York, both at undergraduate level – focusing on Medieval England and Europe – and for an MA in Public History. Her current research focuses on textile history and its ability to tell grassroots stories, as well as its generational links to the past. She has previously contributed to the online magazines “The Historians” and “Periodically Dramatic,” and has written for the University of Cambridge’s “Doing History in Public” project. You can find her on Instagram @bookishhistorian and via her blog https://thiscraftyhistorian.wordpress.com/
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