Meet the participants 2!

Next up it’s Emma Login…

My name is Emma, I’m a final year PhD student from the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage at the University of Birmingham. My research looks at war memorials and their long term development over time, examining war memorials to common soldiers and civilians ranging from 1860 through to the present day. Within this I am particularly interested in the engagement with war memorials that takes place many years after the events they commemorate. To study this I examine the many ways in which memorials are reused and appropriated with new meanings as time passes from their construction.  This includes both physical re-appropriation, when alterations are made to the object itself, (e.g. adding names of previously excluded groups such as women/ soldiers shot at dawn), symbolic re-appropriation, when subtle changes occur in the way the object is perceived (e.g. appropriation of the Cenotaph for ‘Queer Remembrance Day’ to promote equality for homosexual soldiers) and also negative appropriation, when the object is treated in a way that is detrimental to its preservation (e.g. spraying a memorial with graffiti, stealing or destroying its structure).

My research compares these processes of war memorialisation in the UK, France and the USA.  To explore this I have had the opportunity to undertake many exciting research trips in each of my study areas. These have included field work in France studying Franco-Prussian War memorials along the eastern border, and detailed field and archive research on the battlefield of Gettysburg.  I have also had the opportunity to study at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Research carried out at the Library sought to understand the ways in which groups, who consider themselves to be previously marginalised or excluded from past conflict narratives, exert their claim on these conflicts through the urban environment.  As I am entering the final stage of my PhD thesis the ‘Research in Translation’ project will give me a great opportunity to think critically and reflexively about the research I have carried out so far, and the ways that this can be presented to a wide range of audiences

No one alive today has any living memory of the First World War and yet interest in commemorating this conflict continues to grow. The centenary of the First World War has been valuable in increasing public interest in war memory and memorials. This has been beneficial to public outreach in this field as it has brought new and diverse audiences to war memorials.  The Research in Translation project will give me the skills necessary to encourage engagement amongst those who have previously felt no connection to these objects. Learning from museum professionals, I not only aim to present the results of my own memorial research in a new and interesting way, but also to encourage individuals to visit and engage with memorials in their own community. War memorials are so ubiquitous, and have become such a familiar part of the British landscape, that it is easy to pass by without noticing them. It is my aim through this project to give greater visibility to all memorials, not just those from the First World War, and to demonstrate their changing roles in society.

Public engagement projects that have involved research into the names listed on memorials have proved particularly challenging for the discipline. This research has, in some cases, revealed the names of individuals who have been missed off the memorial, and resulted in calls to have these missing names added.  Yet, many names were excluded, not because of clerical error, but because family members did not wish to see the name of their loved one on the memorial and deliberately requested that it not be included. Any alterations would, as a result, go against the wishes of original family members. In addition, many war memorials are now almost 100 years old, and any contemporary additions of historic names would obviously have implications for the integrity of the object.  Tensions can arise therefore between the desires of contemporary relatives and those in the past and, the need to respect the integrity of the memorial as an historical object in its own right. Consequently, it is important to encourage engagement in a way that respects the heritage of the object, but which is also sensitive to the needs of contemporary individuals to whom the memorial may have a deep personal meaning.

Such examples illustrate the difficulties surrounding public engagement with emotional objects such as memorials. Whilst the centenary has been beneficial in increasing public interest in memorials, the extensive media coverage of the First World War has also served to perpetuate myths surrounding the conflict. Perceptions of the ways in which memorials were used in the past can affect their understanding in the present. Presenting results of research which challenges these preconceived understandings can necessarily be very problematic. War memorials are highly emotive objects to which some individuals feel a strong personal connection. Working in a multi-disciplinary environment will give me the opportunity to learn from those who also work with sensitive subject matters and to find ways to present more contentious results of my research; challenging people’s preconceptions about the past, whilst maintaining sensitivity and respect for this delicate subject matter.

Cross-disciplinary initiatives, such as ‘Research in Translation,’ are crucial for providing new perspectives on my research. The familiarity with the subject, which comes from carrying out detailed research, often prevents connections being made which may appear obvious to those from other disciplines. Working in a multi-disciplinary environment provides the ideal context for links to be made between my research and that of other ECRs and to develop collaborative contacts. It is very important to be able to present research beyond the academic environment. Working within a professional museum environment, and learning from specialists in this field will provide the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to present my research to a wide range of different audiences. In doing so, I will be able to make my research stand out in an environment of increasing numbers of projects relating to the memory of conflict.

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