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Happy Anniversary?

On 01, Sep 2014 | No Comments | In | By Voices

Happy Anniversary?

Measuring the Impact, Legacy and Success of Anniversary Events
Dr Joanne Sayner

It is now expected that academics and museum professionals should reflect on the impact of work they have done. But how is such impact to be measured? How can we judge whether an event has been successful? This was the focus of a workshop recently held at Hampton Court Palace and attended by 81 delegates from a variety of institutions including those representing Government, academia, museums and heritage organisations, archives, and funding bodies.

Military cemetery, Châlons-sur-Marne, 1917 [British Library WW1 Online Collection]The workshop looked at anniversary events of many kinds and included papers from those tasked with commemorating the First World War. Against the backdrop of the announcement that the Heritage Lottery Fund would be supporting events relating to ‘significant anniversaries’, we discussed issues of measurement, cultural value, the media of memory, and cross-cultural commemoration, all within the context of thinking about why our society likes to remember key dates and what this tells us about memory in the present.

The workshop opened with a paper by Charlotte Collingwood and Richard Boorman from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport which introduced the Government’s First World War Centenary commemoration programme and the initial plans for its evaluation. Collingwood began by referring to David Cameron’s aim of a ‘national commemoration’ and pointed out that the plan was to enable a range of viewpoints to be represented, not to prescribe a framework. She pointed to an awareness of the dangers of ‘commemoration fatigue’ and to both the flexibility of planning and the period of reflection after 4 August 2014 which are intended to combat this, and she prompted us to think about why we are commemorating the First World War. She suggested that it was due to the scale of the sacrifice, to honour those who had served and died in combat, because of the impact the War had on Britain and the world, and to encourage the public to reflect and learn about the War. She argued that the reasons for commemorating were less controversial than how we should commemorate. She provided details of the Government plans for commemoration, including national commemorative events, the cultural, education and communities programmes, and international engagement. She highlighted what she perceived to be the benefits sought from the plans, and which included opportunities to commemorate courage and sacrifice, for increasing awareness and education, international engagement, and a transformed Imperial War Museum. Boorman then outlined the plans for evaluating the success of the events, using a logic chain which looks at inputs, activities, outputs and outcomes. He explained how feedback on the events was vital in our 24-hour news society and within the context of so many events taking place. He pointed to work going on relating to specific themes, including increasing economic growth and improving well-being. He suggested that a framework of meta-evaluation already existed, using models developed during the Olympic Games, but that these would be supplemented by local community research and assessments by 14-18 NOW and the HLF.

These two organisations were represented by Nigel Hinds and Karen Brookfield respectively. Hinds, Executive Producer of art commissioning body 14-18 NOW, explained how his work, overseen by the Secretary of State, aimed to engage communities across the UK with multi-art forms relating to three key dates (4 August 1914, 1 July 2016 and 11 November 2018). He outlined some of the plans for summer 2014, which include 24 projects and 63 new works of art by artists from 25 countries. He explained how the projects attempt to reimagine the past through the lens of the present. He drew our attention to the balancing act between state funding, the necessary of raising equivalent amounts through fundraising, and he talked about how success could be measured in the establishing of trust and credibility between artists and politicians within the frameworks in which they are bound to work. Brookfield, Deputy Director (Strategy) at the Heritage Lottery Fund, set the work of the organisation into context, explaining how money is allocated with the involvement of national trustees, local committees, and local staff. She outlined the intended benefits of such funding in terms of heritage management, knowledge about heritage, environmental impact and improvements to local areas. She prompted us to think about what we understand by heritage and what role intangible heritage plays within any definition. She demonstrated how the HLF has, for the last twenty years, been helping groups to stage anniversary events and talked about the advantages of such projects: that significant dates inspire groups and partnerships to action and that communities play in important role in recognising dates that are important to them and to people more widely. She cautioned though that such events also bring with them political sensitivities and questioned what happens when one event is superseded by another. She pointed to their risk register for such events which also involved being able to cope with the level of demand. On the basis of experience that HLF had with other significant anniversary events, she outlined the aims in relation to the First World War (including greater understanding, a broad range of perspectives and interpretations, enabling young people to take an active part in the Centenary, to increase the capacity of community organisations to engage with heritage, and to leave a UK-wide legacy). In relation to the legacy, she mentioned the UK web archive, Historypin’s ‘First World War Centenary hub’, the AHRC-funded First World War Engagement Centres, and making a difference for heritage, people and communities by increasing human and social capital.

Brookfield’s paper tackled some of the broader questions relating to anniversaries which were also the starting point for the presentations by Gina Koutsika, Head of National and International Programmes and Projects at the Imperial War Museums and Geoff Cubitt, Reader in History and a member of the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past at the University of York. Gina asked us to consider the different ways in which different centenary partnerships have been organised to commemorate the First World War. She pointed to the divergent systems that have been set up nationally (in France) and world-wide through the IWM, pointing to the different agendas of prescription, ‘party-line’, inclusion, co-ordination, contemporary relevance, and a focus on young people. She raised the question as to whether inclusive programmes have an agility that centrally organised programmes do not and she suggested that through this agility the organisations and communities of the IWM partnership will be able to work around ‘centenary fatigue’. Cubitt asked us to focus specifically on the temporal aspects of commemorative events, events which he called ‘pseudo-events’ because they are recreations of events which actually occurred but are determined by an arbitrary choice of date on which to commemorate or celebrate them. He asked us to consider how such essential arbitrariness must be ‘overcome rhetorically’ and which agendas are mobilised in the process. Cubitt pointed out how pseudo-events can them become events as we experience them and how anticipation and retrospection are inherent parts of this. He highlighted the tensions between events that aim to mark their significance amid the constant cycle of commemorative events, and he advocated examining the intersections of different histories and reflecting on how events of the past are being continuously reconfigured.

The papers in the session on ‘cultural value’ similarly took us to different temporal contexts and helped us to make links between different types of anniversary event. Louise Southerland, Head of Collections and Engagement and the People’s History Museum in Manchester, spoke about how representing the Peterloo Massacre had involved lectures, poetry reading and living history performances in schools. She talked about the museums’ remit in relation to democracy and combating voter apathy, and how the cultural value of the work is manifested in repeated visits by certain sectors of the public and the connection and relevance it has in relation to contemporary events. She explained how the museum negotiates between competing interests of those who would rather focus on historical perspectives and those who prefer contextualisation within regional, national and international events, between those who feel different kinds of ownership of the histories being told and how work can be done to enable people to work together. She pointed to the difficulties that arise when there is a lack of objects for the museum to use and highlighted other strategies that have been adopted instead. The difficulties associated with emotive histories was given a different slant by Megan Gooch, Learning Producer, Learning and Engagement Team, Historic Royal Places. She asked us to consider what history is, how we understand something to be history, and how we use dates in history. In relation to the latter, she pointed to the emphasis on chronology in the new national curriculum, an emphasis which not only brings challenges in terms of time periods which school teachers have not necessarily studied themselves, but also because in time periods pre-1066 there are few agreed dates. She emphasised that deep time is a concept that most people feel ill-equipped to cope with and that the usual techniques for helping very young children deal with understanding time are not always appropriate when longer time periods are involved. She asked whether chronology is more important than dating, whether it is appropriate that event marketing simply creates dates, and whether it is a problem if children are taught the wrong dates. This session raised issues about the ethics of calls to action and how cultural construction of dates can be part of wider attempts to pin down certain types of identity (e.g. English or multicultural identity). It was questioned whether cultural value equates to transformation and, if so, how might change or transformation be plotted.

Two papers looked at the role of television in relation to anniversary events. In his paper, Paul Kerr, Senior Lecturer in Television Production from Middlesex University, pointed to the question asked during the commissioning of an anniversary programme, that is, ‘Why now?”. On the basis of personal experience of making a documentary relating to the abolition of the slave trade, and on academic work on representing history on television, he considered the ‘imperative of anniversaries’ for television. He argued that the success of programmes like ‘Who do you think you are?’ has led to a shift from evidential to experiential programme making since the 1990s. He argued that, in contrast, anniversaries can still allow for a productive emphasis on the evidential. Ross Garner, Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies from Cardiff University similarly questioned how television engages with anniversaries. He examined how specific media forms and institutions overlap to create nostalgia for programmes of the past, exploring the fraught relationship between ownership and rights, between franchising and creativity. On the basis of the twentieth anniversary of the Power Rangers, he looked at how intertexuality (i.e. referring to other texts within a text) is important for constructing nostalgia and suggested that nostalgia becomes particularly important at times of cultural crisis.

Two speakers asked us to think about the ways in which commemorations cross cultures. Nick Martin, Reader in European Intellectual History and Director of the Institute for German Studies at the University of Birmingham, considered how dominant memory of the First World War differs in Britain and Germany. Referring to the typology suggested by Dan Todman, he highlighted key aspects of memories in Britain (including mud, suffering and sacrifice, death and donkeys, futility, poets, veterans and poppies). He pointed to the plethora of funders for First World War commemorations in the UK as compared to Germany and argued that memory of the War in Germany is currently a memory gap which the German Government is attempting to fill. He suggested that public memory of the War is limited due to the much stronger presence of the Second World War and the Holocaust in German public consciousness. He argued, however, that the First World War is now being (re-)imagined as part of ‘an official, 100-year teleological narrative’ stressing wider patterns of violence, democracy, the end of the Cold War, and the uncertainties of the present. Raghavendra Rao K.V, from the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, India, and Anne Murphy, from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, tackled histories of inclusion and exclusion in their performative and artistic work on the Komagata Maru incident, when British Indian passengers were denied entry to Canada in 1914. Their worked raised issues of the multilingual transmission of memories to different communities (including audiences within universities and within the general public), the role of gendered memories, and the relevance of multi-media projects to current policies on immigration. These two papers reminded us how it is possible for memories to travel through translation and to create new communities of remembering, albeit ones which must negotiate the tensions of competing group memories as well as memories of other significant events.

As with many equally productive workshops, this event raised more questions than it answered. It gave us space to think and compare experiences across sectors and commemorative events. It helped us to reflect on the importance we attach to centenary events and why, on our relationships to marking time and what these might mean, and the ways in which we think about the success and significance of our commemorative work. It suggested several formal approaches to measuring success but also reminded us that concepts such as ‘cultural value’ depend on the context rather than having an intrinsic meaning.

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