Last month I was at the National Memorial Arboretum with students on the MA Archaeology of Death and Memory. They are a keen and fun group of bright young people with archaeological and historical backgrounds, avidly exploring the many complex dimensions of death, memory and material culture in the past and the present on our unique course. Our visit to the NMA was to reflect on the complexity, variability and interactions between memorials in this national landscape of remembrance.
In previous posts I have explored archaeological perspectives and dimensions to the NMA as a place where memories are materialised through material culture as well as plants and trees here and here. If that ain’t enough, then also see here. In my latest blog on the NMA, I reflected on the biographies of specific monuments and memorial groves. I argued that memorials are in constant motion at the NMA: growing, being augmented, replaced and (in some cases) disappearing. Here I want to talk about one striking and pertinent example of a memorial in the making at the NMA.
There are a range of memorials on display at the NMA. Many are new and bespoke for this environment. Many other memorials are entirely or partly derived from memorials originally located elsewhere. In this regard the NMA is a memorial ‘museum’, storing and allowing extended afterlives for memorials that cannot survive in their original locations. This might be because the original locations no longer exist, the companies and institutions they commemorate no longer exist, or the social and political nature of those regions and locations make the memorials no longer viable in their original situations. There is more to it than that, however. Many memorials gain power through the translation, and hold meaning through their citation of the other places and past times and events they evoke in their texts, form and materiality.
The Basra Memorial Wall is one of the newest of these translated memorials. It was moved from the British Army base in Basra and commemorates those British servicemen and women who lost their lives in the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. The memorial is located close to the centre of the NMA, close to the Armed Forces Memorial which provides the nucleus of conflict and armed forces memorialisation.
This is now being joined by another memorial to the human cost of a British invasion of another country: the Camp Bastion Memorial Wall. In 2014, this memorial was still in Afghanistan, where it bore the names of the 453 British lives lost on active service in Afghanistan since 2006 and was a focus of remembrance and Armistice Sunday services. It was dismantled in October 2014 for transportation, storage and rebuilding at the NMA as discussed on the BBC website here.
The location selected is on the far side of the NMA, beside the River Trent and proximal to the Armed Forces Memorial. It is a private and yet public location, accessible and yet sheltered. It is also on the side of the Armed Forces Memorial where the names of those died are also inscribed. The same names call out to each other between the two monuments.
The memorial is still under (re)construction following transportation from Helmand province. I was struck by seeing it in this state; sounded by protective fencing, the wall’s blocks exposed, the sheets of stone ready for fitting into place. No work was ongoing; no plaques explaining its powerful significance. It will have two components, replicating its Afghan appearance: a modest part-obelisk and a memorial wall behind it. I’m guessing it will be ready by the summer and an opening ceremony together with national press coverage. For the moment, it is the skeleton of a memorial in the making, not yet a bastion of memory.
Whatever our feelings on the conflict in Afghanistan, those that served and died require some form of remembrance. No matter how politicised this memorial becomes and what one feels about the NMA, this particular memorial, its translation and the power it gains from its two successive and forever-connected locations, deserves our reflection and consideration. This memorial, and the landscape in which it is situated has become a sacrificial landscape for those who serve the nation in war and peace. This memorial therefore operates in relation to its own biography and in relation to its new context. In other words, both through its connection to Iraq and its spatial relationship to a series of other conflict, peace, regimental and campaign memorials, it operates to configure remembrance through context and its life-history. We would be ill-advised to ignore and well advised to explore how the NMA develops over the next few years, receiving further memorials to conflicts and subjects.