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The Academy award-holder exploring commemorations of war

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In Oxford today (10 November 2017), academics and professionals from different sectors will join forces to kick off a brand-new series of interdisciplinary workshops entitled ‘Cultures and Commemorations of War’.

The first workshop, ‘Why Remember? War and Memory Today’, will bring early career researchers and advanced scholars working on the memory of war together with policy makers, charities, and representatives from the media, culture and heritage industries. The aim is to foster an interdisciplinary dialogue about the history and nature of war commemoration across time and to consider the practices and politics of war memory across time.

The project is the work of Dr Alice Kelly – Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Women in the Humanities Programme at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) – who won a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award (BARSEA) earlier this year.

We caught up with Dr Kelly to chat about the events and the different ways that cultures commemorate war today.

Hi Alice. Can you explain what Cultures and Commemorations of War is about?

Basically, this is a series of three interdisciplinary workshops that are happening in Oxford and London over this academic year. The series has its origins in a class I devised and taught at Yale and it was a Freshman seminar, so for first-year students who’d just got to university. I’d noticed that people who work on war just focus on one war – they’ll be a Second World War or a Cold War type person, for instance, and that’s it – but the idea for these workshops is to bring scholars from different disciplines together to think about the similarities and differences between the wars they’re working on. Specifically, the events will focus on the history and nature of war commemoration across time and its cultural, social, psychological and political iterations.

Who will be speaking at the events?

Well, a key part of this is that it’s about scholars at all levels, so there are lots of early career researchers. In fact, the morning workshop on Friday (10 November) is led entirely by ECRs. I’ve promoted this really widely, both in universities and outside to the general public, because it’s also about putting scholars in conversation with people outside the academy who are working in similar fields, so there will also be people who work in charities, or in the media and heritage industries. The keynote speaker is David Rieff, who is a journalist and writer who’s written a fairly inflammatory book called In Praise of Forgetting. He’s also the son of Susan Sontag, so he’s very interesting.

And what do you have planned for the other events?

The next event is on Monday 11 December 2017 at the Imperial War Museum and that’s going to focus mainly on the First World War as a means of thinking about broader issues.
There will be some academic panels and one academic roundtable at the beginning. There will be people who work for various charities, people who work for the Imperial War Museum, and some academics as well. The two keynote speakers in the afternoon at that event are Paul Cummings, the artist who made the ceramic poppies at the Tower of London, and another artist called Jeremy Deller, who did another event for the Somme Centenary where he trained up volunteers and got them to march into railway stations and public spaces on the morning of 1 July 2016.

We’ll also be exploring subjects including First World War memorials in education, 9/11 and what happened to the space of Ground Zero and what it means that tourists want to use that space. Someone’s coming to talk about the American Civil War and what we should do with Confederate monuments. He’s written a piece that suggests we should take all those Confederate monuments and put them into a museum. So, the event is about contemporary commemorations and artistic representations and renderings of commemoration and how that all fits in with what academics are doing, so it’s all very outward looking.

Obviously, on days like Remembrance Day we commemorate the people who lost their lives fighting in British wars. But how important do you think it is to think about war generally? Do you think we sometimes take peace for granted?

Definitely. I don’t think our generation has any understanding of what war really is. Arguably neither do our parents. Even our grandparents were probably children during the Second World War, so their memories are limited too. I mean, really, we’re in a period of absolute peace right now and the wars that are happening are happening far away. In one sense, you could say we know more about these wars because of social media – I use Twitter a lot and I’m really interested in the way we learn about things through popular bloggers and people who Tweet from warzones – but I think, on the whole, we’re quite inoculated at the moment and it’s nothing like it was 100 years ago when the First World War was a total war and everyone on the home front was completely affected by it.

And what, specifically, has the British Academy Rising Star funding paid for?

It has paid for a lot of things. It’s paid for three workshops and travel for the speakers, as well as the poster design and the website. Generally-speaking, a big part of my work involves taking research out of the ivory tower and that’s why I’m really appreciative of this award because it enables me to do that.

What three things do you most want to achieve through these events? 

Firstly, I want to encourage people to think a bit more broadly about war commemoration and war memory, by thinking outside of the box, not just thinking about what happened in the First World War and the Second World War, but really developing the field and thinking a bit more broadly about war from a transcultural perspective. So, broadening our understanding and broadening the field. I’m hoping this will lead to publication.

I also hope this will lead to the development of a network of researchers and practitioners who’ll work on these ideas. The second thing is it’s important for me to bring early career researchers into the fold and also engage people, having them take an active role. I want to create an open conversation where everyone can bring something to the table. Early career researchers have a really interesting part to play in this because they tend to be the ones who are reading, for instance, blogs from Syria, who are reading The Conversation, and who are plugged into these new ways of receiving information.

And the third aim is to take ideas out of the academy and create a network of academics, practitioners, researchers, charity workers, etc. who can explore these ideas further.

The British Academy’s Rising Star Engagement Awards (BARSEAs) are designed to enable early career academics to actively engage in the work of the Academy and to enhance their own skills and career development through the organisation of events, training, and mentoring activities for a wide range of other early career researchers.

The window for applications to the 2017-18 BARSEAs is open now.

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