This time last year the moat of the Tower of London was filled with 888,246 ceramic poppies – each representing a fallen soldier – to mark the centenary of the outbreak of WWI. Created by artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, the sculptures stirred the hearts of the public, and were snatched up when they went on sale for £25 each. You might even have one on your mantlepiece.
However, there were two ladies who decided to buy nearly 10,000 ceramic poppies between them. No, they didn’t flog them for extortionate amounts on eBay... They donated them all as a memorial to the nation. Now these poppies are going on a UK tour, with the first stop being Woodhorn Museum in Ashington from 12th September–1st November.
It’s quite a big undertaking, but one that 14–18 Now are more than happy to do. ‘We’re the cultural programme for the First World War centenary commemoration,’ explains Director Jenny Waldman. ‘Our aim is to commission and to present some contemporary artists’ reflections on the First World War all over the UK in the centenary period. We commission artists across all art forms – in dance, in film, in digital, in writing, in art – and we present the work in partnership with arts and heritage organisations right across the country.’
So, from now until the end of 2018, 14–18 Now will help the poppies carefully travel around different venues in the UK where they will form two sculptures: Weeping Window (a cascade pouring from a high window to the ground) and Wave (a sweeping arch suspended on towering stalks). It’s the Weeping Window that’s coming to Woodhorn Museum.
‘We were enormously struck by the proposal from Woodhorn,’ Jenny says. ‘It’s an extraordinary colliery heritage site as well as a contemporary museum. It has a really interesting First World War resonance itself, both in terms of the disaster at the colliery during the war but also in terms of the Northumberland Regiment and the wider regional impact of World War I.’
The disaster Jenny is referring to is a gas explosion at Woodhorn Colliery in 1916. It killed 11 men instantly, with another two dying later in hospital. Although the losses would have been greater if the explosion hadn’t occurred on a Sunday (as more men would have been working in the pit), it was still a devastating blow to the community as it happened at a time when many men from Woodhorn Colliery were fighting in France.
This is just one story in the history of the colliery, which became a museum in 1989 and after major redevelopments reopened in October 2006 – its yellow Ashington brick buildings have protected listed status and the site is recognised as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. It’s also home to Northumberland Archives which covers over 800 years of the county’s history from historical artefacts to archived documents. It’s the perfect venue for a WWI exhibition, something which 14–18 Now agreed with.
‘The Tower of London was dramatic and visually very powerful and striking. But it also had been used as a recruiting place for soldiers in the First World War,’ explains Jenny, ‘One of the things that we are trying to do with each place that we take the poppies to over the next few years is to find very different settings to the Tower of London, but ones that are as equally striking and compelling.’
Bringing the fragile poppies from London to Northumberland is not easy. Each poppy is individually and carefully packaged, before being loaded onto a truck for the long journey. ‘Logistically, transporting them is quite complicated,‘ says Jenny. ‘The structure needs its own flat-bed truck and the poppies need their own suspension vehicle, it’s called an air-ride truck, and they travel in that.’
When they arrive, there will be more work to be done. ‘We work with the venue to arrange the installation. The Weeping Window is slightly redesigned for each place it goes to because the cascade of poppies that comes out from the top is not always at the same height. So there are site visits and new drawings and alterations each time so that the sculpture fits the setting,’ Jenny explains.
‘We work with a team of art handlers who are there to look after the delicate poppies, and we are testing them now in different conditions – so we won’t have them out in the depths of winter and things like that.’ Despite all the hard work, Jenny can’t wait to see the finished sculpture. ‘I think the Weeping Window will look really extraordinary where the artist has placed it in the outside space of the museum.’
The Weeping Window is a free exhibition open to all members of the public. ‘I hope the tour will do a number of things. I hope it will involve and engage local communities in finding out more about the history and heritage of the First World War in their area, to share stories of their own families, of people who lived in their streets and communities,’ says Jenny. ‘I think when it goes to each place, to Woodhorn and elsewhere, it will unlock those local stories about what happened 100 years ago, and will draw people from further afield, It will bring visitors and that will be, I hope, a benefit to the venue and its surrounding areas as well.’
12th September–1st November
Weeping Window at Woodhorn
Museum and Northumberland Archives, Queen Elizabeth II Country Park, Ashington