There’s plenty of new things to see at the National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas (near Lichfield), Staffordshire. After only a hiatus of two years, the visitor centre is rebuilt and there are plenty of fresh memorials added to this distinctive memorial landscape.

The only negative aspect of the experience was perhaps inavoidable: the presence of armed police with sniffer dogs: after the Manchester attacks. The NMA is presumably considered a potential terrorist target. The staff were friendly and helpful, the restaurant stacked with food, the gift shop full of souvenirs, and the weather was glorious.

I was pleased to go with 3 fellow academics from the University of Chester: the superbly bright modern historians Dr Rebecca Andrew, Dr Kara Critchell and Dr Tim Grady. Together, we have distinctive research interests which touch upon the NMA as a feature of the UK’s commemorative culture, including its landscape, memorials and plantings.

Chester students and staff enter the ‘Landscapes and Life’ exhibition

Our trip was open to all history and archaeology postgraduate taught and research students at Chester, and we were glad to be also joined by MSc Musuem Practice students from University Centre Shrewsbury.

The ‘year in the life’ of the NMA video in an auditorium within the new exhibition ‘Landscape of Life’

The NMA is the UK’s focus of commemoration (and it claims more broadly to be a focus of remembrance too), with hundreds of memorials and thousands of trees planted to those who have served and died in the line of duty among the UK’s armed and emergency services. There are also memorials to former colonial armed services, prisoners of war, regiments and military bases . Memorials can be found to a wide range of charities, civilian institutions and organisations as well as trees planted to memorialise individuals. Few commemorate working class occupations outside the military and wartime sesrvice (i.e. there is one). The site is run by the Royal British Legion.

As part of my interest in the ‘contemporary archaeology’ of conflict and death, I’ve posted previously about the NMA, including on the following themes and related to 2 academic publications in peer-reviewed journals:

Reflections on memory as one enters the Landscape of Life exhibition

Now in 2017, so much as changed and there is so much more to write about, with the trees growing further, new memorials and memorial gardens added. In this post I wish to focus on the re-designed visitor centre opened in 2016, including a new permanent pay-to-enter exhibition: Landscapes of Life.

Defintiions and justifications for the Landscapes of Life exhibition

The Landscapes of Life exhibition clearly speaks to a need felt by the NMA to educate its visitors, as well as to justify its existence and purpose. It is housed in a new building housing the foyer of the NMA between the pre-existing but heavily refurbished gift shop, restaurant and toilets to the south, and the Millennium Chapel to the north. Together, they evoke a monastic cloister around a memorial garden of redesigned trees and memorial slabs. I should make clear that the exhibition is the only pay-to-enter element of the NMA: the rest is free for visitors all year round.

The exhibition takes a distinctive perspective on memory as it seeks to explain the rationale for, and significance of, the NMA. It promotes commemoration as an historical tradition ‘since earliest times’ and part of ‘our heritage’. The ‘language of remembrance’, including symbolism and text, is likewise portrayed as both historical and timeless. From ‘ancient burial grounds’ to modern war memorials, the exhibition argues we are fulfilling a tradition through the NMA. Remembrance is consequently posited as both a duty and something ‘natural’ to being human, something personal and social in equal measure too.

About the NMA

Within this all-embracing culture of remembrance, the role of the Royal British Legion as situated as being the ‘custodians of Remembrance’. Hence, this exhibition is about the commemoration of commemoration, and the memorialisation of memorialisation. The medium of the arboretum – of growing, of living, of vegetal remembrance – is central this narrative. We are told it exists as a ‘tribute to life’, but it is actually a tribute to memory. Furthermore, the exhibition emphasises memory as an active process: one that all visitors are encouraged to participate in and contribute towards.

Principal elements include:

  • Introductory texts explaining what memory is: remembrance, commemoration and memorialisation;
  • a ‘film drum’ – an auditorium with a looped film exploring a year in the life of the Arboretum;
  • Then there are various interactive dimensions as one walks over a path of leaves to a poppy field projected on the floor and touchscreen displays;
  • there is a model of the bronze sculpture of the Armed Forces Memorial;
  • a temporary artist’s exhibition reflecting on remembrance and colours: Palette: An Immersive Journey into Colour and Art

I want to focus on some of the key dimensions within the exhibition which possess archaeolgical and material dimensions.

Inside the Landscapes of Life exhibition – the timeline of commemoration and leafs of memory projected onto the floor

A Timeline of Remembrance

A timeline of the history of remembrance follows the auditorium ‘year in the life’ display. It incorporates an eclectic range of monuments from prehistory to the present, crudely in chronological order. Following it, one charts dimensions of the human story of commemoration. So the timeline is about situating memory as a transtemporal human practice from earliest times through to the present day.

I was particularly fascinated by the fact that along this timeline are a series of artefacts and monuments I focus on in my research. (I’ll come back to discuss the prehistoric, ancient and medieval monuments in a subsequent post.) As well as photographs and models, there are also actual monuments incorporated into the timeline. There is, for example, an English Heritage blue plaque on display in the timeline, as well as a memorial bench!

Memorials embedded into the memorial timeline

From the perspective of my research on contemporary conflict archaeology, I was struck by the high-profile given to the Torcross Tank Memorial. Established in 1984 adjacent to the car park at Torcross, Devon, it is featured in the exhibition through a model, photograph and text. I wrote about this monument in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.  This distinctive memorial by a British local resident honour those US service personnel who died in the battle training for D-Day. It embodies international dimensions, local initiatives and the role of retrieved militaria in remembrance: all features of the NMA’s memorials in broader terms.

Again, I repeat, the exhibition is about the commemoration of commemoration.

A monument I’ve written about: the Torcross tank memorial…
The model – one of a series – of historic memorials – this one to the Torcross tank memorial in the South Hams of Devon

Memory Hub

As noted above, the exhibition actively encourages participation in the memory process. There is a memory hub where you can sit and record memories to video. This is in a separate booth framed by suspended images of different individuals of contrasting ages, genders, military and civilian affinities, and ethnic origins. Nearby is a board where you can post your memories without this resort to technology.

The ‘memory hub’ from outside – the glass covered in mnemonci leaves
Inside the memory hub
Leaving messages of remembrance.

Make your own memorial

Another fascinating dimension of the active engagement with the NMA’s vision of remembrance in new museum is a section allowing you to make your own memorial. This involves a selection of key monumental forms used in 20th/early 21st-century memorialisation, and a space where you can learn about ‘what they mean’ and arrange them to create your own memorial. It includes one for ‘mounds’ that will interest archaeologists most, with the statement:

many ancient cultures used mounds to mark special burial sites

Symbols of remembrance
Make your own memorial

What is the NMA About?

Having explained the NMA’s role, introduced the history of commemoration since earliest times, framed the NMA as ‘our heritage’ and allowed you to contribute to ‘growing remembrance, the exhibition show-cases 9 of the NMA’s memorials. These appear on 9 pillars, containing wooden blocks which I presume are intended to imply both the building blocks of memory, trees and the human body. These displays are introduced with a text panel reiterating ‘what the NMA is about’. It states that hundreds more are ‘waiting to be discovered and understood’ in the grounds. Notably, as I will discuss in a future blog post, one of these 9 is actually a Bronze Age burial mound!

Themes for the Arboretum

The 9 displays each bear text panels and some display of artefacts and objects linked to the commemoration practices at the NMA. Each served as a focus for displays show-casing a selection of the memorial gardens at the NMA, including the Shot at Dawn memorial, the General Post Office memorial garden, and the South Atlantic Task Force Memorial (Falklands).

9 pillars – 9 memorials

wooden ‘people’ within the memorial displays

Conclusion

This brand-new exhibition left my head spinning. Deploying a range of interactive technologies and textual and visual media, the exhibition is about memory and about educating and justifying why the NMA exists. It contains memorials, and situates the NMA in relation to global and national commemorative culture.

Having made clear that the distant past is key to this exhibition’s rationale for the NMA as a project of remembrance and commemoration, in my next post on the NMA I will explore how representing and displaying archaeological artefacts and monuments is key to the exhibition.

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