The Cultural Politics of Commemoration
: Participatory Art and Britain’s Great War During the Centenary Moment

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis examines how the First World War centenary in the United Kingdom has been mobilised to construct a commemorative relationship between the past and the present. It demonstrates how the centenary of the First World War has been deployed by government, artists, creative professionals, and audiences to engage in contemporary politics. It departs from and extends the existing literature on commemoration by examining the role of participatory art in state-led commemorative agendas. It does so by focusing on 14-18 NOW, an independent arts programme set up by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, a programme that incorporated participatory art as a significant commemorative innovation. Taking three nationwide mass participatory artworks produced by 14-18 NOW as case studies, this research maps the artworks against governmental, institutional, and individual agendas. In doing so, it brings debates surrounding the politics of war commemoration into conversation with literature on cultural policy and the cultural value of the arts.

This conversation maps and interrogates three interconnected areas of enquiry. Firstly, it examines the ‘cultural memory’ of the First World War as an evolving set of discourses which are analysed across a wide range of cultural texts including the artworks, interviews, political speeches, and the media. Secondly, it charts how these discourses have been repurposed to create useable pasts during the ‘centenary moment’, a period which saw heightened polarisation over a range of political issues shaped by austerity politics, Brexit, and debates over identities. Thirdly, it interrogates the ‘politics of participation’. This research reveals that participatory art as a commemorative form, confounds easy categorisation as state-led or emerging through social agency. As an art form that privileges interaction, co-creation, and a multiplicity of voices, participatory art created space to widen the lens of commemoration to include a more diverse range of subjects and audiences. While participatory artworks are often depicted as open and democratic, a range of factors shaped interactions with these artworks, including pre-existing memory templates, cultural hierarchies, and neoliberal impact agendas. This research makes a significant contribution to the field by highlighting the emergence of mass participatory art as a commemorative form and as a method of public engagement. In doing so, it reveals how the arts have been mobilised to engage the public in commemoration in a way that government alone cannot.
Date of AwardOct 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorDeborah Madden (Supervisor) & Rebecca Searle (Supervisor)


  • First World War
  • Commemoration
  • Cultural Memory
  • Popular Memory
  • Cultural Politics
  • Participatory art

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