The report examined how the public engaged with the anniversaries of the outbreak of the war, the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1 July 1916), and the armistice on 11 November 1918.

Collaboration between historians and community groups key part of success of First World War centenary

Collaboration between historians and community groups has played a key part in the success of the First World War centenary commemorations, research shows.

University of Exeter expert Professor Catriona Pennell has contributed to a major new government report into the impact of events held over the course of 2014 to 2018 marking a series of 100 year anniversaries of the First World War.

The report, by MPs on the Department of Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and published on 16 July, examined how the public engaged with the anniversaries of the outbreak of the war, the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1 July 1916), and the armistice on 11 November 1918.

The politicians took evidence from Professor Pennell and her colleagues, who are investigating the impact of centenary events as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project Reflections on the Centenary of the First World War: Learning and Legacies for the Future.

The research team, led by Professor Lucy Noakes (University of Essex), have found that the World War One Engagement Centres, also funded by the AHRC, have helped create “vital local connections” between university-based researchers and community-based history and heritage groups. Amongst a variety of outreach projects, academics have held talks and workshops and trained others in how to create an exhibition or collect oral history.

The funding for these centres expires at the end of 2019, which means it may be hard for such collaborations to continue. In their evidence to MPs the Reflections team said continued financial support would provide a good basis for future co-produced projects.

Professor Pennell said: “These centres were the first time academics and community groups were formally supported to investigate the past and co-produce events in this way. The work that stemmed from the centres was extremely valuable, and an interesting experiment in the way co-production and shared ownership of academic research takes place. It would be interesting to know how the government intends to utilise this approach moving forward, particularly in the light of forthcoming major anniversaries of the Second World War.”

Other evidence provided by the Reflections team highlighted the spontaneous grassroots activity which had taken place across the country to mark the centenary and the variety of different ways in which the anniversaries were marked. Researchers found centenary projects have widened understanding of the role of soldiers from the Empire in the First World War, the ‘home front’, and women’s work during the war.

The select committee report recommends the Department for Culture, Media and Sport should work with the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the AHRC to assess what measures can be taken to maintain the links made between academic historians and local community and heritage groups during the centenary, and to foster future engagement in new academic findings and interpretations.

Since 2017, Professor Pennell and her Reflections colleagues have been gathering testimony from members of community history and heritage groups and historians who have worked on First World War centenary projects, as well as members of the public who attended events such as the Tower of London poppies installation, which opened in November 2014. 

The Reflections on the Centenary of the First World War: Learning and Legacies for the Future project is funded until 2020 and will produce a variety of outputs including a co-authored book and a substantial report for the AHRC detailing how academics have been involved in community-based projects during the centenary and what can be learnt from these activities for future collaborations.

Date: 24 July 2019

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