The (32) Thousand Different Hands: Big Data and the “Poppy Volunteers” of Blood Swept Lands & Seas of Red (2014)

Dr Eleanor O’Keeffe, Historic Royal Palaces


Volunteer gloves drying on a washing line at the Tower of London’s makeshift ‘Poppy Office’ in 2014, by permission of Natalie Gough.

As the UK mobilised a new volunteer effort to fight Covid-19, it felt timely to be working on a history that touched on contemporary volunteering in Britain. As many have reached to wartime analogies to match the sense of national crisis, it serves us well to remember that this volunteer mobilisation – as well as the wartime mobilisation we recall through it – has been predicated on a lively voluntary sector, with deep historical roots in British liberal traditions. According to the National Council of Volunteer Organisation’s 2019 report into the volunteering experience, Time Well Spent, ‘the scale of volunteering in today’s Britain in prodigious’, and incredibly diverse.  Two out of every five adults took part in some kind of volunteering activity during 2017-2018.  In recent years, volunteering has been boosted by many socio-economic and political factors, but particularly encouraged in the arts and culture sector via by large-scale and innovative programmes, such as London 2012 and the Centenary of the First World War (2014-2018).

“Tower Poppies” (2014) is a fascinating entry point into this activity, with the entire installation of 888,246 poppies built (and taken down) by a considerable number of volunteers. Researching project files, we have identified 32,037 separate volunteer shifts, with the number of individuals probably not far short of this. There were repeat volunteers, but when demand boomed just hours after its official opening, HRP prioritised first timers. The “Poppy Volunteer” population count, therefore, nearly equalled that of the entire Centenary programme and is not too far short of half the figure for 2012. Without them, the installation that moved so many people would not have happened; it certainly would have lacked much of its visual power and emotional punch. Spectators flocked to see the slow and careful work of the red T-shirted volunteers, which daily pushed the seas of red towards the perimeter of the moat. Their labour recalled powerful British narratives, including the ‘rush to the colours’ of the First World War. They gave credibility to the installation as a public history project, realising Raphael Samuel’s powerful dictum that history is – and should be – the work of “a thousand different hands”.

Volunteers ‘planted’ the 888,246 ceramic poppies of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. (Copyright: HRP)

If Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) had known what an incredible success the installation would be, our project may have found some more researcher-friendly volunteer data. As it was, the intense pressure of a highly ambitious installation, and short project timescales, were not conducive to strategising about audience research methodologies. Very few people who worked on it in its earliest stages thought that they would get enough volunteers to plant enough poppies, let alone to merit study.  Instead, we have remnants of a digital application process – answers inputted by members of the public when they applied for shifts via a Google docs form, which were collated by HRP’s volunteer co-ordinators into spreadsheets for rota purposes. There is little of what anyone would consider good information in these responses: no ages (applicants confirmed they were over 18); no addresses (to test the claims that Poppy Volunteers came from around the globe); no way of judging socio-economic or ethnic background. All we have are thousands of responses to the simple question – How did you hear about this opportunity? – which was left as an open field.

Volunteers ‘planted’ the 888,246 ceramic poppies of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (Copyright: HRP)

Historians who examine First World War mobilisation have often argued that, whilst it’s important to appreciate the big social, economic or cultural dimensions of the ‘rush to the colours’, we should remember the personal: there were as many motivations as there were individuals who joined up in 1914-1915. I was reminded of this a good deal when reading the responses that prospective “Poppy Volunteers” had given to that hardly oblique question. Each open field allowed for a kind of digital marginalia, for the writing around or above the issue, which has left the data richer in the end. As with much digital humanities research, we can examine this computationally, charting the major drivers behind volunteer sign up through grouping responses thematically.  We can thus envision the significant changes in the cohort over the five months of the project, as what started as a corporate dominated population (c. 70% in July) was diluted by interweaving networks of charities, military communities, cultural enthusiasts, ‘seasoned’ volunteers, and those increasingly attracted by the enormous media coverage. (In the end, work places were crucial in 22.6% of cases – the second most important factor in volunteer sign up).

The volunteer experience as recorded in a page from a photo book of one ‘Poppy Volunteer’ by kind permission of Daniel Musikant.

I’ve let the open fields imbue the analysis as much as I can. Human concerns and relationships shape technological interactions and imparting something of the messy complexity of response has been important for many reasons. For one, our routinised image of ‘employer supported’ volunteering might be complicated by the 5% of responses referencing work colleagues, managers, and conversations in working teams. Work places support volunteering in all sorts of ways, via work hierarchies or social life. Even a spreadsheet offers glimpses into the lives and loves of the thousands of those who signed up. For a surprising number of the 18% of volunteers who refer to friends and family, the specificity of that relationship does matter. Mums are important – one bestows a digital kiss – but knowing that volunteering emerged as the first family jaunt with a new partner, for instance, shows you the many ways that lives collided with the installation. Even emotions born in that moment of technological interaction can impart themselves through that still-open field, destabilising the perkiness of the question:

How did you hear about this opportunity?

Our son was blown up and killed in Iraq.


About the author: 
Dr Eleanor O’Keeffe is the Post-Doctoral Research Associate on Lest We Forget: Poppies and Public Commemoration, an AHRC funded project, led by Dr Megan Gooch. This examines meaning and participation within Blood Swept Lands & Seas of Red or “Tower Poppies” (2014), an artistic collaboration between Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper.

Eleanor is currently furloughed under the Job Retention Scheme, but can be contacted on the details at the top of the post.


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