Commemoration can take many forms, from preserving the sites or buildings associated with past conflict, through the erection of new museums or memorials, to the production and display of various artefacts. In addition, many societies have special days set aside for remembrance which are usually accompanied by parades or other memorial ceremonies.
But there are many other ways in which societies have commemorated the past - parading, poetry, dance, fiction filmmaking, documentary film-making, fine arts and sculpture, memorial lectures, bursaries. All of these have resonances, real and potential, in our society.
The following lessons and tips, with accompanying case studies, will consider a number of these approaches and examine why they were worthwhile and what can be learned from their approach.
We need to come out of this more than better historians. Funders are prepared to support commemoration as long as it’s done in an ethical way that helps to shape society in a way that is beneficial for all.
Stick to the principles
Successful commemorative events most often stick to ethical principles, such as those developed in partnership by the Community Relations Council (CRC) and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF):
- Start from the historical facts;
- Recognise the implications and consequences of what happened;
- Understand that different perceptions and interpretations exist; and
- Show how events and activities can deepen understanding of the period.
All of the above are to be seen in the context of an ‘inclusive and accepting society’. Some organisations featured in the case studies adopted the CRC/HLF principles consciously, while others undertook the work according to their own ethical framework which mirrors the sentiments and intentions of the CRC/HLF principles.
Recognise the challenge
The biggest challenge for most projects is getting people involved. Some are afraid of commemorative events and some people will be of the view that it is best to leave the past alone. This can be overcome by approaching prospective participants including politicians, community workers and others face to face, and inviting them to come along to the events planned. Such methods can lead to events being consistently well- attended, with meaningful sharing and discussion.
Adopt the 'Whole Decade' approach
Successful centenary activities use a “whole decade” approach to the years 1912 – 1923 rather than trying to single out one anniversary. This is because the events of the decade are so interlinked that it is difficult to discuss one without the other. Considering the whole decade can also ensure that multiple perspectives and experiences can be explored, covering all sides of the community.
Memorialising recent events
While some events focus on exploring the period of 1912 – 1923, others cover a number of more recent events and anniversaries. Sometimes this makes sense in terms of the audience – such as for school resources as they to cover a range of historical issues and may find constraint to the notion of the centenary difficult. Often combining a range of recent and more distant events can make it more appealing for participants to engage, but also using recent events can bring them further into the past by encouraging participants to begin to think about historic roots to recent events.
While some projects are very much aimed at exploring public commemoration of major events in history such as the Ulster Covenant, the Easter Rising and WWI, other projects are more focused on the memorialisation of personal events and experiences. There is a lot of scope to do projects that expand the middle ground between the more well-known historical events and the personal experiences. One way to expand this middle ground is to place personal experiences of local people in local places in the larger context of major events.
Ways to engage participants
Commemorative projects need a starting point or “way in” to the Decade of Anniversaries. There are a number of ways to engage people as seen in all of the case studies highlighted in this toolkit. Some of the methods fostered interest and participation:
- By using artworks from other conflict areas to stimulate discussions about the Northern Ireland conflict, before asking participants to produce their own textile art.
- By using a specific human story to create a film which could be used to raise issues and stimulate discussion.
- By giving participants options to explore creativity through real or digital artwork, projects create space for socialising as well as exchanging views and reflections. The opportunity to create something gives people a tangible sense of ownership over the process of remembering.
- By making interactive online resources available, there is a higher level of engagement. These resources are popular, especially among young people and teachers, but the success of the resources depends on having adequate support in learning how to use them.
- By combining site visits with lectures or creative opportunities. Participants are often engaged by being brought face to face with places and organisations with whom they might not otherwise come into contact.
- By utilising drama, whether in full-length plays or dramatised moments threaded throughout workshops and events, many participants have been drawn in to explore the Decade.
- By taking an interactive approach. Even in lecture series, contributors can create opportunities for participants to have an input, ask questions, discuss and reflect on the issues, and explore their own views.
- By asking experts, such as academics or individuals who are well-versed in their own organisational or individual history, to contribute to projects in meaningful ways. Their expertise can be used to advise and shape projects in ways that maintain integrity to historical facts while often opening up a larger context to consider other issues.
- By ensuring that discussion, exploration and reflection be sensitively facilitated, in keeping with the principles outlined above, in order to create an appropriate environment for sharing and dialogue. Skilled facilitators can ensure that this happens effectively.
- By making your event or project local as well as global. Many of the events being remembered were of global or national significance. This can be done by referring to local people and to local areas in the context of major historical events.
- By remembering in an interdisciplinary fashion, understanding that everything is connected to everything else. Such an approach engages a wider range of participants since historical events and life in the present day are formed by politics, theology, culture, literature and history: dealing with history through all of these lenses provides people with more access points to the history.
- By helping participants to feel entertained as well as educated and challenged. Clearly, the events being commemorated and explored were of grave significance, altering the course of history in many ways. Yet, projects often have the potential to signal a serious event in history in a way that is still energetic and enjoyable.
Successful projects often seek to engage with those who wouldn’t normally come, rather than the “usual suspects.” For some projects, this may mean commemorating together on a cross-community basis, pointing to increased understanding that arises from learning and reflecting together. For others it means reaching out to groups such as people from ethnic minority backgrounds to ensure that people from all communities and backgrounds can engage with the Decade of Anniversaries.
Accessibility is a key part of organising events. Knowing how much your participants know is important, as there are many people with little or no knowledge of the period 1912 – 1923 or other anniversaries. Start with information that is readily digestible and activities that are enjoyable and engaging to build up knowledge. Additionally, for cross- community projects, venues either need to be neutral, or moved from week to week or month to month from a venue associated with for example the Unionist community, to a venue associated with the Nationalist community.
Deal with the difficult issues
The subject matter of the Decade of Anniversaries can be potentially seen as difficult territory. Therefore, it is important to name and engage with the difficult issues rather than avoiding them. You may need strong facilitation at hand during your project to ensure an ethical and inclusive experience, but there are methods and processes available that, while they can be challenging and thought-provoking, can be engaging and non-threatening.
Products and legacy
Many projects result in a product, like a film, a play, a website or archive, an exhibition, a booklet or series of papers, or works of art. While a product is not necessary, creating one often leads participants to feel as if they now have a resource which could be used again and again, in different settings and in different communities, to stimulate discussion and facilitate exploration.