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Expert Comment: Poppies on the Plateau

Poppies on the Plateau Wednesday 4 November 2015

Dr Michael Brennan and Dr Peter Manning are currently researching the relationship between national commemorations and local identities. Here, they give their thoughts on the installation of the 'Weeping Window' at Liverpool's St George's Hall.

Later this week, the ‘Weeping Window’ of hand-painted ceramic poppies that formed part of the exhibition at the Tower of London, attracting more than five million visitors, are coming to Liverpool. They will be draped from St George's Hall and will remain in place until 17 January 2016, having been on display for the past two months at the Woodhorn colliery museum in Ashington, Northumberland and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield. This regional devolution of commemorative practices is of interest to us as sociologists, not least because it appears to signal a shift away from a traditional London-centric focus for acts of national mourning and reflection. Its promise lies in the potential it holds for the admission and inclusion of voices – of region and class – for so long neglected within mainstream culture. At the same time, we must be attentive to the way that all acts of remembrance and commemoration – especially of national histories and pasts – can exclude and marginalise “others” in turn, or engender discord over the appropriate ways to remember painful histories.

As sociologists of memory and mourning, our research involves exploring the significance of context and place upon how meaning and memory are actively made. The choice of St George's Hall, and the plateau in front of it, as the site for the location of the exhibition is itself significant, for it has long since been a part of the city's cultural identity, a place for Liverpudlians to gather, en-masse, in good times and bad. From its early imperial associations upon completion in 1856, the plateau became the recruiting ground for local young men eager to sign-up to fight for ‘King and country’ following the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. In more recent times the plateau has borne witness to the 20,000 people who gathered there for a peace vigil following John Lennon's assassination in December 1980 and again following publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel's report in September 2012 which provided the impetus for fresh inquests into the deaths of the 96 people killed in Sheffield in 1989. In this sense, the plateau at St George’s hall has been marked as site of collective significance for the observance of national, regional and specifically local experiences of loss and renewal. 

Away from the pomp and majesty of the Tower of London – a setting with a different set of associations from St George's plateau – it will be interesting to see how the installation will be "read" by those who visit it. Research from the field of memory studies suggests that monuments and memorials take on new significance in different settings and among different generations. Meaning in this sense is never "fixed" but varies across audiences and changes over time.

As the French sociologist of the early 20th century, Maurice Halbwachs, has shown us, memory is never "pure" but socially mediated, often in ways that alter the meaning of the event being remembered. Indeed, none of those visiting the poppies exhibition will have first-hand experience or memory of the Great War. This raises questions about what or whom, exactly, is being remembered and mourned here. As consecrated or sacralised space, how will the ways in which this space has been used in the past be "read into" present understandings of the poppies exhibition? What memories will visitors bring with them to the exhibition and how might these reflect wider social and regional inflections on memory through which individual recollections are filtered and given shape? It is to these questions, and others, that our research will seek to provide answers.

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