Walking around the new multi-million-pound Remembrance Centre, it’s hard not to be moved by the stature of what has been created. Costing close to £16 million and almost 31,000 sq ft in size, the National Memorial Arboretum now has a building that matches the breath-taking memorials that the site houses.
Financed by The Royal British Legion, the new centre is at the cutting edge of design, interactive exhibits and Remembrance – bringing the Arboretum bang up to date and making it an immersive and powerful experience for all who visit.
The new Heroes’ Square features commemorative paving stones that are engraved with the cap badges or crests of the Royal Navy, the British Army, the Royal Air Force and London Livery Companies.
Looking to the future
For more than 15 years, the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire has been the UK’s year-round centre of Remembrance.
What started out as the brainchild of Commander David Childs CBE has turned into a site covering 150 acres, with more than 300 memorials and 30,000 trees, with that number added to every year. As the Arboretum itself has grown, so have visitor numbers – more than 300,000 guests visited last year.
"The old building was built for 60,000 visitors a year, but now we can welcome more than 450,000 people a year."Sarah Oakden, NMA’s Head of Marketing
To keep pace with this increase, it was decided that a new Remembrance Centre had to be built. After numerous years of planning and design, and 12 months of intensive construction, the new centre opened in October 2016.
“We’ve more than doubled the size of the centre,” explains Sarah Oakden, the National Memorial Arboretum’s Head of Marketing. “The old building was built for 60,000 visitors a year, but we are now becoming more of a nationally significant site and envisage welcoming more than 450,000 people a year within the next decade.”
After ground was broken on the project on 11 September 2015 by Sea Cadet Beth Molyneux, work on the site continued quickly, with up to 120 workers on site at any one time to help achieve the ambitious project.
The new restaurant features hand-measured ceiling beams.
The whole centre is a feat of engineering – from the hand-measured ceiling beams in the expansive restaurant to the 32ft (10m)-tall drum that houses part of the interactive exhibition space.
The new space enhances the visitor experience at the Arboretum, with a significant amount of the £15.7 million spent on making a trip to the centre an immersive and educational one.
Thinking through the visitors experience
As soon as you walk through the front entrance of the Remembrance Centre, you’re greeted by screens detailing events happening on that day – whether there’s a special memorial dedication taking place or a message welcoming a visiting branch – before entering the vast reception area.
The diary on the right belonged to Walter Meade and is opened to his last entry before he went up the line in the First World War. Sadly he was killed and his Dead Man’s Penny is displayed alongside the diary.
From there, you can immerse yourself in two exhibition spaces, pick up a device that will give a guided tour of many of the memorials on site or just head to Heroes’ Square and take in the surrounding area at your own pace.
“Remembering is part of our human need”
“The whole site is much better equipped to meet the needs of our different groups of visitors,” says Sarah. “We’re trying to get across that Remembrance is for everybody.
“A large proportion of people who come here have a connection to a memorial or someone remembered here. However, there are many people who have never visited because they don’t feel they have a connection with Remembrance or the Armed Forces. Of course that isn’t the case – remembering is part of our human need and you can’t help but be moved by the many stories woven across our site. Everyone is touched by Remembrance somehow, whether it’s directly or indirectly.”
Walter’s last handwritten entry in the diary, dated 3 October 1917, says: “up the lines at night”.
This is clear throughout the permanent exhibition, with its focus on the personal stories behind the site’s monuments – from the ‘Many Voices’ video projection that documents people talking about why Remembrance is important to them, through to the state-of-the-art ‘Theatre of Remembrance’ memory booth, where visitors are encouraged to record their own experiences of Remembrance, or how they feel about the Arboretum.
The Legion and the NMA
The Arboretum’s ties to the Armed Forces and The Royal British Legion in particular are never far away, though, adds Sarah: the Legion provides an annual grant to the NMA, and many of the Legion’s branches contributed thousands of pounds towards the construction.
The bond is highlighted across the new centre, the standout example being on the floor of the main exhibition where, when walked on, a projected field of leaves will clear to reveal a path of poppies:
“This is going to be really popular with children in particular and has been designed to engage them in what the poppies mean on a level they might understand.”
“What’s important is what’s out in the 150 acres of the Arboretum.”
As well as the exhibition spaces, restaurants and classrooms inside the centre – the two classrooms will act as a learning area for more than 20,000 schoolchildren each year – the new space also houses Heroes’ Square and the transitional garden, a peaceful patch that ties the building to the memorials and woodland.
The main exhibition space, with totems to represent the breadth of the Arboretum’s memorials and a digital path of leaves reveals a field of poppies beneath your feet.
“If I had to pin it down, that is my favourite part of the new centre,” says Sarah. “It really does provide a platform to view the wider Arboretum – from the Polar Bear Memorial, the first memorial built here, to the imposing Armed Forces Memorial. And at the end of the day, this building is a facility. In a lot of places the building would be the main thing, but here, what’s important is what’s out in the 150 acres of the Arboretum. Heroes’ Square and the transitional garden give you the opportunity to view that and to see the panorama and think about what’s important.”
What is clear after looking around the new centre is how inclusive and special it makes the site feel. It’s an embodiment of the idea that the numerous memorials are not just pieces of stone, but there to represent thousands of individuals who each have their own story – turning the Arboretum into a place for everybody, regardless of background or interests, and helping more people engage with the act of Remembrance.