Thursday, 10 November 2016




We shall not sleep, though poppies grow …” (John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”, 1915)

Each November, we pin bright red poppies to our lapels to remember the sacrifice of war veterans. Since tomorrow is Remembrance Day, I wanted to look at an example of commemoration in which visual art illustrates the magnitude of loss caused by war.

In summer 2014, one of my favourite historic sites, the Tower of London in England, unveiled a commemorative art project to pay tribute to war veterans. Coinciding with the centenary of Britain’s involvement in World War I, the Tower’s grassy moat was filled with ceramic poppies in a striking visual display. Titled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the installation was created by artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, and remained at the tower between July 17th and November 11th of that year. 

Tower of London moat with red ceramic poppies spilling out and onto the grass.
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the commemorative art installation at the Tower of London in 2014. Source.
Poppies were added progressively for the duration of the project, increasing in number to show the war’s growing death toll in a wave of red. After the installation was removed, each ceramic poppy was sold to raise money for six charities providing support for veterans.

I was fascinated to see how the poppies illustrated the sheer number of casualties in the First World War alone. A total of 888,246 poppies were placed in the ground by volunteers and represented British and Colonial military fatalities in World War I. When you realize that such a sizable number of fatalities still only accounts for a portion of the lives lost in WWI, the installation puts the reality of the war into perspective. 

Ceramic poppies in the grassy moat of the Tower of London were sold after the project was finished.
In keeping with the poppy campaign's purpose of raising funds for veterans, all of the poppies were sold after the installation was removed from the Tower. Source. 
While I didn’t get to visit the Tower during the commemoration project, I had looked at a number of photographs at the time it was ongoing. An estimated five million people saw the memorial. Seeing this installation span the length of the Tower (which itself is located right on the River Thames in central London) is a testament to the visibility of the project and its accessibility to the public.

I’ve gone back to look at pictures of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red numerous times in the last two years – it captured my interest because of its visual impact and historical significance. The symbolism of the poppy brings the public commemoration of WWI to life and fosters shared and personal reflection.

Memorial crosses and poppies stuck in a gate outside the Tower's moat.
Memorial crosses and poppies outside the Tower of London. Public commemorations evoke remembrance and offer a space for personal or shared reflection. Source.
This commemoration of the WWI centenary made me reflect on the enormity of war and the reason we take time each November to reflect. Amidst our busy lives, it’s important to take a moment to look back on elements of our history. Visual commemorations in museums, heritage sites and public spaces offer a gathering place for communities to remember personal and shared experiences - lest we forget. 

Have you seen any visual commemorations that left an impression on you? How did they represent public memory?

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