In previous posts and publications, I’ve considered the ways the distant past is drawn upon as setting, explanation and justification for the memorial, landscape and vision of the National Memorial Arboretum. 

I’ve recently revisited with historians and MA students studying history, archaeology and museum practice from the University of Chester (and University Centre Shrewsbury) to see the brand-new Landscape of Life pay-to-enter exhibition at the NMA. Here, appropriating antiquity as a strategy for situating the NMA has been enhanced further.

The exhibition is ‘meta’: commemorating commemoration and memorialising memorialisation.  This is clear at the beginning of the timeline of remembrance that runs around the core of the exhibition.

The timeline ends at recent decades with (among others) the break-up of the Berlin Wall and its souvenirs, the commemoration of the Myall Creek Massacre (NSW, Australia), and Holocaust memorialisation, thus situating the NMA itself in wider contemporary commemorative practices globally.

Where it begins is more fascinating still. The pastiche of memorial images and text attempt to evoke, in brief and crude terms, a sense of the many fashions by which early people commemorated their dead, ancestors and links with the past. But does it?

  1. We start with West Kennet long barrow, near Avebury (Wiltshire). No date is given for this monument, which actually dates from the early Neolithic – the mid-4th millennium AD. Equally, no mention is made of the funerary treatment of the dead and long-term use of this megalithic chambered tomb: key dimensions that explain its significance. Instead, the text inaccurately states ‘Like Stonehenge, it is part of the ancient memorial landscape at Avebury’ (wrong in that it is nowhere near Stonehenge, and that it was not a ‘memorial landscape’ at all, and if it ever became so, that would have been a millennium later). The enduring and symbolic qualities of stone are the focus here, and are linked to the NMA explicitly in terms of symbolism and emplacement: ‘Because stone lasts so long, it has been important in remembrance since pre-historic times’. Well, it is disputable whether stone had, and has, such a universal memorial association, and indeed, the large number of earth-and-timber early Neolithic long barrows suggests otherwise for later prehistory. The photo and text is joined by a modern carving, stating without context that ‘symbols like this have been used in remembrance since ancient times’ and inviting tactile interaction. Whether this is so, and how memory is linked to touch, this particular object has no specific bearing on West Kennet. In short, I’m not aware of how this display will be comprehensible to visitors in any regard;
  2. The Obelisk of Ramesses II, Luxor, Egypt, comes next. It is mentioned that Augustus moved obelisks from the site to Rome. This serves to emphasise the use of obelisks throughout the NMA and the translation of memorials as a commemorative practice in itself. Certainly it is right to say that obelisks ‘have been important in remembrance since ancient times’ but this obscures (a) the many periods in between when they were not and (b) the very specific British/European imperial and military histories wrapped around their successive reinvention on 18th-/19th-century funerary and landscape monuments, and their deployment in Boer and First World War memorials.
  3. Next we jump to the Chinese tradition of spirit tablets, which it claims to date ‘from c. 300 BC’ although the photograph is of an early 20th century one from Glasgow Museums Collection. I guess this serves to emphasise the global span and longevity of textual memorial practices but the significance is not made at all clear;
  4. Moving right along, we have a quote above the images: “they buried the greater part of the dead just where they each had fallen… some that lay upon the roads, however, they did gather together and honour with as fine a burial as their means allowed. While for those they could not find they erected a great cenotaph and placed wreaths upon it.” This is a quote from Xenophon and explains the building and meaning, and modern derivation of ‘cenotaph’ as ’empty tomb’. Implicitly, this defines the very purpose of the NMA: a landscape of memory without the bodies of the dead as well as its martial ‘heroic’ focus inspired by temples and tombs of ancient Greece and Rome. Having said that, the quote’s emphasis on neglecting formal burial with ritual is somewhat contradictory in the context of 20th-/21st-century military ceremonial funerals;
  5. A Roman tombstone – a famous one at that! This is of Longinus the cavalryman from Colchester and on display at the town’s museum. It is deployed here in the exhibition to claim that tombstones were used for ‘ordinary people’, when actually this is a specific type of monument to a very distinctive individual. Calling a Roman auxiliary cavalryman ‘ordinary’ is more than simplistic, it is misleading to the extreme, since Roman tombstones were most popular among those that aspired to Roman citizenship for themselves and/or their families. This does little to justify the roots for the ‘everyman’ discourse of modern military commemoration at the NMA;
  6. Then we have the triumphal Arch of Titus built by Domitian commemorating military victories. It is explicitly noted for inspired many other monuments including the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but the particular significance of Titus in later medieval and modern imaginings of the Roman Empire and the Holy Land isn’t articulated. The role of triumphal columns in celebrating some of the most hideous despots in history gets overlooked;
  7.  The helmet from Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo! Wow-tastic! ‘From Sweden? Probably not. In ‘Germanic style’? Hmmm, some might say. What is it doing here? It’s an icon of ‘early England’. It is ‘martial’? Sure ,but also ceremonial. It is from a burial context? Agreed. Is it a cenotaph? Well, not the theory currently in favour, but just maybe. Is it kingly? Well ok, so it is thought to be. It is depicted as an example of one of many ‘treasured possessions buried with important early Anglo-Saxon people’. I think I need to leave this one hanging, but the association with a burial mound and a boat-burial are left untold, let alone the details of other items from the same grave and elsewhere on the site.
  8. Talking of hanging, I will finish by mentioning the final early medieval ‘monument’ in this section: the Bayeux Tapestry. The propagandistic dimensions of memorialisation is touched upon here at least, noting that the celebration of events and the victory is only told ‘from the Norman side’. The photograph is from the Victorian replica from Reading, and shows Duke William on horseback in the midst of the battle showing his identity to his own troops. It is a pity that the replication and reuse of embroideries as a commemorative medium are not discussed further.

So … wow! What a lot of early monuments and allusions to different memorial traditions from across time and space, without even getting to the last thousand years of the timeline! I could go on to discuss the later medieval and modern memorials selected for inclusion, but I think I have to stop here for sanity’s sake.

What can we conclude from this small and earliest chronological section of the broader timeline that serves to commemorate commemoration and memorialise memorials?

  1. Well, first it isn’t really a timeline, and it is more a crude chronologically ordering of images and text which connote a set of themes in commemorative material cultures and monuments deployed in very different, and unrelated, historical contexts from the distant past;
  2. Most of the examples seem to be selected explicitly for their military associations to heroes, kings and emperors;
  3. Others are clearly selected for their formal similarity to, and inspiration for, 20th-/21st-century memorials.

The problem with this to my mind is that there is no attempt to convey how recent centuries have appropriated and adapted materialities, forms, ornamentation and textual traditions of commemoration from the distant past. The timeline is misleading and deceptive, serving less to inform about ancient commemorative practices as to selectively justify the NMA as a continuance of hallowed tradition.

NMA is many things, but it is certainly something new and not a continuation of established traditions that can be traced back through millennia. Likewise, this is not a timeline, it is a contrivance. If it is considered a timeline, it is a timeless timeline which conflates and confuses, rather than charts, the passage of time and the influences and connections between mnemonic traditions.

I’d like to thank the NMA and specifically their interpretation curator – John Hughes – for kindly taking the time in answering my questions about the new exhibition. He explained that it was designed by a panel of academics, heritage professionals and designers to introduce the NMA to visitors.

I wonder what other visitors make of this?