The 2014-18 First World War centenary has been a unique period in which to consider the meaning and impact of state commemoration at the local, national and international levels. As it draws to a close in 2018, there will inevitably be an intensification of commemorative activity, and attention focused on evaluating the significance of the four-year period.

This research workshop focused on the experience of commemorative events and sites, activities that are more often examined from structural, official or historical viewpoints. It sought novel perspectives oriented alongside the individuals and groups who attend, design, and enact commemorative places and programs. Contributions attended to the anticipation, thoughts and emotions, knowledge, embodied and sensory perceptions, or processes of reflection that people engage in when they encounter environments weighted with commemorative state histories. We asked what effects these have in people’s lives, and how these experiences might be entangled with many other aspects of them. Also important was how these experiences ripple out to affect collective identities, as well as their political and institutional import. Contributions that consider methodologies for such research were also welcome.

The goal of this international and interdisciplinary workshop was to open up new ways to conceptualise commemoration, building on more traditional approaches that focus on historical representation, but going beyond this by arguing that commemorative events’ and sites’ messages are significantly reproduced, reinforced and redistributed experientially. This aspect, we argue, must be a vital part of how we understand these important state activities.

This, our first workshop, drew together participants from Australia, the UK, Belgium and France to present their approaches to experiences of commemoration. A position paper, research agenda and videos of the presentations will be available here soon.

Accounting for the experience of commemorative events and sites

This paper lays out a framework for accounting for the experience of commemorative events and sites, activities that are more often examined from structural, official or historical viewpoints. It argues that reorienting how we conceptualise commemoration by focusing on how people experience it can open up fresh understanding to how official messages are reproduced, reinforced and redistributed. In turn this carries implications for national identity and who it includes and excludes. The paper will address affective and non-representational approaches to commemoration, consider the implications of these in terms of cohering national groups, and link these concepts these to methodological approaches grounded in ethnography.

Shanti Sumartojo

RMIT University

Shanti Sumartojo is Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University (Australia), based in the Digital Ethnography Research Centre. Her research investigates how people experience their spatial surroundings, including both material and immaterial aspects, using design and sensory ethnography and creative practice methodologies. With a particular focus on the built environment and urban public space, this includes ongoing work on memorials and commemorative sites. She is author of Trafalgar Square and the Narration of Britishness (2013), and co-editor of Nation, Memory, and Great War Commemoration (2014) and Commemorating Race and Empire in the Great War Centenary (2017).

‘Reflections on the Centenary: Learning and Legacies for the Future’ – Commemorating the First World War within the UK

This paper accounts for the ongoing work of the ‘Reflections on the Centenary of the First World War: Learning and Legacies for the Future’. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, this project seeks to explore the legacies of the widespread public and academic engagement with the First World War, within a UK-context, over the course of its centenary commemorations. Around the country local history groups, school children, arts groups, museums and many others have come together to research, explore and publicize some of its less well-known local histories, bringing to light ‘hidden histories’ of 1914-1918. These illuminate both the war’s local impact, and the close ties between this local history with the multiple ways that the war shaped the wider world.

Over the course of this paper, we outline the scope of our forthcoming research activities – including how we plan to capture individual and group responses to involvement, within this variety of commemorative initiatives. We also consider the opportunities and challenges for this growing corpus of community led research, and what the impacts of this could mean for future commemorative programmes. In commenting upon the application of ‘co-produced’ knowledge and how this might affect historical remembrance, we offer a contribution on the UK as a unique case study of participatory activities.

James Wallis

University of Exeter

James Wallis is a research fellow at the Universities of Exeter and Brighton. Currently employed on ‘Reflections on the Centenary of the First World War: Learning and Legacies for the Future’, he has worked on several post-doctoral First World War-related projects – including affiliations with the ‘Everyday Lives in War’ Public Engagement Centre (University of Hertfordshire) and ‘Living Legacies 1914–18’ (Queens University Belfast). Formerly an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award student at Exeter and Imperial War Museums, his research explores the critical geographies of conflict heritage in a variety of contexts. Recent and ongoing projects examine the relationship between photography and conflict commemoration, and museological interpretations of the First World War. His recent work includes Commemorative Spaces of the First World War: Historical Geography at the Centenary (edited with David Harvey, 2017).

How we experience memory in the everyday city

How a nation memorialises its past – through monuments, national days, plaques and commemorative vigilance (cf. Nora, 1989) – is integral to projects of nation building in the present. While large scale and state-driven sites of memory and collective memory events are often purposefully chosen and located, markers of national memory and collective identity are also embedded in more everyday settings. While this paper’s remit lies firmly in the experience of commemoration, it directs its lens on the event in its everyday context.

The everyday streetscape, in combination with the city’s urban façade, is a place of encounter with the nation through reminders of its past.  These reminders – small-scale memorials, street names and remnant edifices – remain when the official commemorative spectacle has passed.  My research looks at how these commemorative spaces are encountered as part of their everyday environment(s). I draw on examples of memory-work in Warsaw, Berlin, Amsterdam and Singapore, where I have employed a pastiche of methodological tools to explore my, and others experience(s), of commemoration in these everyday spaces. In each instance, I have also remained mindful of how a politics of memory – the purposeful selection of representations of the past – has contemporary significance to linking commemoration of the past to the nation in the present.

Danielle Drozdzewski

UNSW Sydney

Senior Lecturer Human Geography, UNSW Sydney
Visiting Research Fellow, Institute of International Studies, University of Wroclaw and Berlin Institute of Integration, Humboldt University. Bio: Danielle Drozdzewski is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at UNSW Sydney. Her research expertise is in examining the intersections of memory, identity and place, especially within the context of commemoration of war and violence. She has recently published Memory, Place and Identity: Commemoration and Remembrance of War and Conflict with Sarah De Nardi and Emma Waterton. She is currently working on co-editing the Routledge Handbook of Memory and Place and on a new project examining the role of memory in refugee settlement in Germany and Poland.

Memorial diplomacy and the ‘invisible spectrum’ of state commemoration

The commemorative calendar of the First World War is a periodic reminder of the diplomatic dimension to war memory with its country-specific political agendas. If we define “memorial diplomacy” as a set of policies and practices which seek to mobilize a shared sense of collective memory and transnational history as a vehicle for international relations, it might be assumed that commemorative observance is essentially top-down, conducted by state agencies acting on an inter-governmental plane within the visible spectrum of conventional and digital media. This paper looks instead to the ‘invisible spectrum’ of experience, to the significance of remembrance for individual citizens, families and communities. Australian career diplomats overseeing the annual Anzac Day Dawn Service commemoration at Gallipoli have long been aware they are responding to growing popular demand as much as stimulating it; the fading of communicative memory has not dampened the inter-generational urge to remember or its increasingly genealogical character.  Civil society provides the content of the era of commemoration, its manifold stories and human substance, even as public agencies strive to shape its form and meanings.

A premise of public diplomacy in its commemorative mode must be that it involves not just state-to-citizen, but citizen-to-state and citizen-to-citizen agencies. The challenge for historians and social scientists is to understand how remembrance is experienced at the grassroots level through the home, workplace, or local community and measure its larger impact. The method proposed is site-specific: it focuses on the recorded experiences of visitors to the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Mazargues in Marseille through the first three years of the centenary, considered against the backdrop of official commemorative activities at the local and regional levels. By comparing and contrasting memory “in the minor key” on the threshold of the international remembrance trails, with the macro-messaging of state-driven commemoration on a national scale, this approach highlights the overlapping, competing and potentially conflicting claims of community, nationalism and internationalism in the identity politics of the centenary.

Matthew Graves

Aix-Marseille University

Matthew Graves is Associate Professor in British and Commonwealth Studies at Aix-Marseille University, an Associate of the Australian Prime Ministers Centre and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. His research interests lie at the crossroads of transnational history and political geography and he has published widely on issues of shared memory and identity in 19th-21st century Europe and Australasia, with a focus on shared history and geographies of memory, among them a series articles and book chapters on Australian commemorative spaces co-authored by Elizabeth Rechniewski (USYD). Recent international publications include Geographies of Identity (co-ed., Portal, UTS ePress, vol 12, n°1, 2015) and Histories of Space, Spaces of History (co-ed., E-rea, 14.2 2017). Matthew is a commissioning editor of the ‘Contemporary Societies’ imprint of the University of Provence Press and Liverpool University Press, and a convenor of the Critical Geographies seminar (LERMA, Aix-Marseille University-Montpellier 3). He is currently writing a monograph about the uses of the past in international relations entitled Memorial Diplomacy.

How to analyse commemorations?

Since the end of the 1980’s, the number of commemorations is on the rise. They have become a whole encompassing many different elements and involved actors. At the same time, local forms of commemorations are also more widespread than before. All groups feel the necessity to commemorate something, which doesn’t mean that it this relevant for the whole society though. But no one wants to be excluded from history. For researchers, it becomes increasingly difficult to address all aspects of the commemorative phenomenon. Nearly everything, if not everything, can be commemorated.

Commemorations appear as a privileged way to analyze how societies apprehend their relationship not only to the past but also to the present.

How are decisions made? Which groups are involved? Under which form are these commemorations organized? Some are traditional, classical; others completely new. How to analyze them? Which methods and tools can researchers use?

What are the common points between visiting an exhibition, analyzed as a commemorative event, and laying a wreath at the war memorial? What is the audience for a commemoration and what does it mean?

How to measure the success of a commemoration?

These are some of the questions we want to bring to the discussion. We will do so based on an overall plan developed as part of the commemoration of the centenary of the First World War.

Laurence van Ypersele

Université catholique de Louvain

Laurence van Ypersele is Professor at the Université catholique de Louvain (Belgium). She teaches Modern History and she works especially on World War I and the memory of WWI. She is a member of the board of the Historial de la Grande Guerre of Péronne (France), and has written several books, including: Le roi Albert, Histoire d’un mythe (Quorum, 1995; Labor, 2006); Question d’histoire contemporaine: Conflits, mémoires et identités (PUF, 2006); Je serai fusillé demain. Les dernières lettres des patriotes belges et français fusillés par l’occupant, 1914-1918 (Racine, 2011); and Brussels, War and Memory, 1914-2014 (La Renaissance du livre, 2014).

Chantal Kesteloot

Université libre de Bruxelles

Chantal Kesteloot is doctor in Contemporary History (Université libre de Bruxelles, 2001). Since 1992, she has been a Member of the permanent team of the Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society (CegeSoma) (, and is currently in charge of the sector of public history. Her main areas of interest are the history of Brussels, memory of the war and Belgian history; issues of nationalism and national identities. Corresponding Secretary of the International Federation for Public History.

What is a meaningful warscape? Ask the visitor… 
The case of WWI sites in Flanders

For sure, nowadays visiting a battlefield is more than a pilgrimage, resulting from personal involvement and grief. Although battlefield tourism or heritage tourism of war sites cannot be considered mainstream tourism, visitors of war heritage sites are looking for experience and genuine emotion. The latter means that battlefield tourist are not necessarily ‘dark’ tourists. Events such as the commemoration of the Great War foster not only the question of ways to contribute to a meaningful experience but also how to use and (not) to commodify the heritage sites of war. Tremendous efforts have been taken to equip and lay-out the sites but is this responding to the needs of the present-day visitor?

Therefore our research is focused on the interpretative perspective of the warscape and the emotional reaction to the place or site by visitors. Several sites in the Belgian WWI front zone were analyzed in depth via fieldwork resulting in 164 short interviews (2013) and a further 185 interviews (2014), exploring the visitors’ experience and probing the making of memory. Our research revealed a number of memory and experience supporting elements, mentioned at all sites, that are key to the sense of place for visitors.  A distinction has been found between sites of commemoration and reflection on the one hand and sites of imagination and empathy on the other hand. Therefore our results go beyond the common knowledge that warscapes, and more generally memoryscapes, are physically and socially constructed landscapes endowed with symbolic meaning. They can contribute to the conceptualization of commemoration by using the building blocks that the visitors are happy to offer us, ready to be used and redistributed.

Dominique Vanneste

KU Leuven

Prof. Dominique Vanneste is Associate Professor at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, Division of Geography and Tourism. She is involved in the research groups of Human Geography and Tourism and is the director of a Research and Development Unit ‘ASTOR’ (Association for Tourism Research) as well as program director for the KU Leuven part of an Erasmus Mundus Master in Sustainable Territorial Development. She represents KU Leuven with the UNITWIN-UNESCO network and with the UNWTO Knowledge Network. Her main research interests and lecturing topics are: economic geography (regional development, networking and location factors), historical geography (relationship between landscape, heritage, identity and conservation) and tourism (sustainable tourism and governance, heritage tourism, geo-tourism, tourism as a regional development lever). She assumes research on World War I since 2009 with several international publications (book chapters in Sacred Places in Modern Western Culture, 2011; War and Tourism, 2012; Handbook of Dark Tourism Studies, 2016); presentations on international conferences; and ten project reports and master theses on different aspects of WWI and its relationship to the present day landscape, visitors and (tourism) products.