Memorials, heritage interpretation and the First World War

 At first, working with remembrance, with its focus on memorials, felt so familiar I couldn’t distinguish it from heritage interpretation. Both interpretation and remembrance can about remembering and keeping a story alive. They both speak to us of what happened, who was involved and what that means for who we are now.

I had learned about remembrance mainly from my work at the National Memorial Arboretum, ‘the national centre of remembrance’ in the UK.

I  learned about remembrance mainly at the National Memorial Arboretum, ‘the national centre of remembrance’ in the UK.

A year ago I identified the relationship between interpretation and remembrance as an important issue for interpreters as we approach the centenary of the First World War.

Interpreters will be involved in retelling the story of the 1914-18 conflict, hopefully in a wide range of places and in all manner of media. We will be using our skills to make it relevant. We will be looking for the connections between those events and the lives of contemporary communities. Where we look, the stories we find and retell will strengthen some connections. The stories we do not tell will be weakened.

Picture 12My work in Ireland, at the National Memorial Arboretum (NMA), the National Army Museum and currently at the Royal Air Force Museum have helped me to think about interpreting conflict, especially relatively recent conflict. I have talked about it in England and Sweden and later this week I will talk about it again in Croatia.

Each of those occasions has given me the chance to listen to new perspectives. There are many perspectives and I have learned just how limited mine is. Every person I have spoken to has told me something new and valuable. As ever, interpreters do well to listen at least as much as they speak.

I came to thinking about the First World War with a sense of how far we in Europe have come in the last century. I wanted an internationalist, visitor-focused perspective on how we approach interpreting heritage where our national stories are so different. I hoped to explore creative ways in which we could look back together at the time we tried to tear each other apart. My interpreter’s instincts were as ever towards inclusion and multi-faceted approaches to a complex story.

Most English villages have a war memorial

Most English villages have a war memorial


I spent a lot of time looking at memorials, in small villages and in large national arenas. I have been very moved by them, by what they say about the people they were erected by, as well as the people they were erected for. Memorials are eloquent, they carry generations of emotion. They give us a space where we can remember our own. In this place, we can be alone with those we have lost, their memories and the stories we have about them.

At a personal level, remembrance is powerful and important. It has a power, authenticity and authority that demand respect and recognition from the rest of us. Usually it is sharply focused. It has a single story; it is a very specific remembering. This comes both from its personal aspects and may be politicised.


Interpretation, on the other hand has to look outward, It is a point of balance between those who tell the story and those who have come to hear it. Interpretation leans towards the audience and responds to their understanding. At its best it promotes dialogue. It recognizes that there is more than one side to a story, especially, maybe, if that is a story of conflict.


I had learned about remembrance mainly from my work at the National Memorial Arboretum, ‘the national centre of remembrance’ in the UK.

A tight focus on a particular story can lead to a blinkered view.  (Preparing a talk for an international audience I discovered that Americans call these ‘blinders – an even more eloquent metaphor for interpreters.)

I think the difference between interpretation and memorialisation rests in our understanding of story and most importantly our ability to include different stories. Unlike memorials, interpretation can and I now believe should, present conflicting narratives and bring in new perspectives.

Sometimes it is hard to honour the stories we have to tell whilst also respecting the knowledge and experiences of the people we are talking to. When the stories involve conflict and the memories of loved ones we need extra reserves of skills, compassion and understanding.

For more about TellTale and the range of work we do go to our website.





One thought on “Memorials, heritage interpretation and the First World War

  1. Bill Bevan says:

    Thinking much the same with my work on memorials. Also that interpretation is a way to get beyond people recorded on memorials as simply being numbers, names, casualty stats – but as living, breathing, working, loving individuals who were parts of families and communities – to plot their live histories leading up to the fateful need to inscribe their names on memorials – and bringing together all from different counties and countries to share their similarities.

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