Crowds celebrate the end of world war one. Image: Getty Images

World war one commemorations result in new ways of working

Caroline Parry, Issue 118/12, 01.12.2018
The thousands of initiatives marking the centenary of the war have showcased new ways of working in partnership and engaging museum audiences. By Caroline Parry
The first world war centenary commemorations have highlighted new ways of engaging audiences, cemented new partnerships and created a digital model for future anniversaries.  

The five years of activities, which culminated on Armistice Day on 11 November, have spanned thousands of initiatives from community events and projects to the £6.5m refurbishment of Imperial War Museum (IWM) London’s First World War Galleries.  

The Heritage Lottery Fund invested nearly £100m in more than 2,200 projects. IWM led the First World War Centenary partnership programme, which created a network of 4,000 organisations in 62 countries. It helped coordinate the events and activities marking the centenary, while offering online resources such as images and research packs.  

“It has been successful,” says Diane Lees, the director general of IWM. “It helped that we were able to bring together all the relevant agencies from early on. It has been six years in the planning.”  

The success of the partnership programme means IWM plans to replicate it for future anniversaries, beginning with some work around the second world war.

“Digital was key to managing that,” says Lees. “It worked across multiple languages and time zones. It was great to see our material being used in other countries.”

Digital work was also a key strand of the National Army Museum’s commemorations, driven by the museum being closed for refurbishment for a lot of the centenary.

As well as its travelling exhibitions and outreach work, the museum’s First World War In Focus digital strand focused on the story of a different soldier each month. The project was illustrated using 574 collection objects.  

According to Ian Maine, the museum’s assistant director (collections and programme), the project has helped to underline the human side of the first world war. “It is a bit of cliche, but it is the personal stories that people connect with,” he says.  

The National Army Museum has also sought to emphasise the contribution made by soldiers from other countries, with its Brothers In Arms travelling exhibition assessing the role of the Indian army.  

For Lees, the legacy of the commemorations lies in the successful partnerships created, and the potential these partnerships have shown for connecting new audiences with different organisations and content.  

“By working with contemporary artists, we have brought new audiences into heritage and vice versa,” she says.

Jenny Waldman, the director of 14-18-Now, which worked with more than 300 artists and 500 partner organisations to create the centenary’s art programme, notes there was particular crossover success where artists and partners were invited to work in public spaces.

“These events demonstrate that museums can benefit from being involved with work, even if it isn’t in the building,” she says. “It can still be impactful and positive for all.”  

The 14-18-Now programme, which used IWM’s resources and archives to inspire artists, engaged with 35 million people over its five years – far exceeding its 10 million target.

Getting the right tone was of particular importance for such a lengthy commemoration, says Lees at IWM. It is a lesson that she feels can benefit future anniversaries.  

“It is something we have done successfully through the words that we used, and the way emotion was injected in to it,” she says. “We called it our ‘empathy check’. We are talking about the people who lived through it. The tone of that is so important.”

Major HLF-funded centenary projects

  • HMS Caroline, Belfast £15m
  • 14-18-Now (WW1 £10m Centenary Art Commissions)
  • First World War £6.5m Galleries, IWM London
  • Ys Ysgwrn (home of £3.1m soldier and poet Hedd Wyn)
  • First World War: £14m Then and Now (National Lottery-funded community projects receiving between £3,000 and £10,000)  

Source: Heritage Lottery Fund