The deeper meaning behind the Tower of London poppies

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Queen at tower poppies

Royal visit: the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh paid tribute to the fallen in October

The sea of red poppies at the Tower of London has captured the hearts and imaginations of not only the nation, but the whole world. The Tower saw record numbers of visitors come to catch a glimpse of the 888,246 poppies. The installation was visited by members of the Royal family and even the Government stepped in to extend its poignant reign. But what was its deeper meaning? And what did people take away from the spectacle that is so familiar to us now?

Imagine the scene in the years after the First World War. Every family has sacrificed and everyone grieves. In recognition, memorials are erected, the two minute silent tribute is introduced, and poppies become commonplace. No one need ask ‘What is remembrance?’ ‘Who owns it?’ ‘How do we do it?’ Everyone knows the answers to these questions because they’ve witnessed the war and felt its impact.

Answering these questions in 2014 is much more difficult. Not only does a more complex range of histories exist about the war, but living witnesses have passed away and families are less likely to know their own war-related histories as a result. Our general knowledge about the war itself is incomplete. To make the First World War centenary meaningful to our audiences, we need to not only teach them about the war, but also to help them move to a more reflective position in line with the aspirations of the centenary commemoration.

tower poppies

Sea of red: a national schools campaign was launched around the three questions

Why Remember? our learning and engagement programme for Tower of London Remembers, was designed specifically to engage our audiences in a meaningful discussion about First World War remembrance and by so doing, transform their relationship to it. To move audiences to this position we knew that it was much more complex than simply telling stories about the war, so we developed three questions which helped shape content development and ensured audience progression:

The first question is an invitation to re-connect audiences with local, national or international stories. The second helps audiences explore why the centenary, as the symbolic moment when lived experience passes into documented history, is important in helping to shape our future understanding of the war. The third question acknowledges that remembrance can have both individual and community aspects which can be expressed in many different ways.

Ahead of Armistice Day, hundreds of thousands of schools from the UK, USA and Canada tuned into a remembrance assembly, broadcast live from the Tower of London. The assembly, produced by Discovery Education in partnership with our learning team, explored the three questions and saw local schools, military personnel and poppies artist Paul Cummins take part in what was a momentous part of our centenary commemorations.

For young and old, formal and informal, from self-guided through to deeper intervention and national projects, we have found the three questions are successful way of ensuring that our audiences engage not only with the history of the war itself and to better understand its impact and legacy, but also to create a safe space to communicate and express thoughts and feelings about what remembrance means to them.

One thought on “The deeper meaning behind the Tower of London poppies

  1. I was fortunate enough to spend some time looking at the installation a few days before it was finished. The crowds were large and very respectful, a truly thought provoking day.

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