V&A Explanatory Text

Between July 11th 2015 and January 16th 2016 the Victoria & Albert Museum ran a Society of British Theatre Designers exhibition entitled ‘Make/Believe’.  A part of the exhibition dealt with theatrical representations of war and included 16 ceramic poppies purchased from the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ exhibit staged earlier in 2015 at the Tower of London.  The text introducing the ceramic poppies exhibit was unsettling due to a degree of semiotic dissonance centering on the symbolic nature of the poppies at the heart of the work and  competing metanarratives of war as tragedy and war as cultural capital.

This is a particularly interesting use of metaphor to encourage semiotic convergence of the signs ‘war and ‘disease’ at the level of index and symbol – the text uses the   metaphor of war as a disease [5][numbers refer to sentence numbers in the original text]suggesting those killed in war were victims not of a government determined action but of an unforeseeable, uncontrollable natural catastrophic event such as the concurrent Spanish Flu epidemic.  At the same time the text refers to the war dead as those who offered their lives in sacrifice[6].  In any event the deaths are presented as a tragic loss of life.  Simultaneously, however, there is a marked lack of information concerning the individuals associated with the V&A whose deaths the museum’s purchase of the poppies is said to commemorate. The V&A’s dead are simply referred to as

  • Sixteen V&A staff [5]
  • The men ( whose names are recorded in the Museum’s main entrance) [6]

The honoured dead remain nameless and the objects symbolising their loss are displayed away from their memorial stone in an exhibit concerning the fictional/theatrical representation of war . The constructed nature of the metanarrative of war as tragedy is inadvertently revealed.

Whilst the war dead receive only passing attention in the text, the poppies as objects, and the cultural cachet associated with their maker, receive a great deal of attention: we learn the identity of maker, Paul Cummins, and the poppies as objects both individually and en masse are referred to as

  • Poppies
  • Ceramic poppies by artist Paul Cummins
  • The 888,246 flowers
  • Sixteen of these
  • These poppies
  • Each ceramic poppy
  • All the ceramic poppies
  • Individual flowers
  • Blood swept lands and seas of red
  • Tower of London Poppy Memorial
  • 888,246 flowers
  • Poignant and dramatic installation
  • All the ceramic poppies displayed
  • Paul Cummins work

Additionally a cloud of verbs associated with trade surrounds the poppies; they were designed for sale, the spectacle of their display brought them to the public attention and the public can share in the cultural capital of that event by purchasing a piece of it. Although paper poppies have long been sold as commemorative symbols of the war dead for Remembrance day, they have not held the same cultural capital as the ceramic poppies sold following the Tower of London display.  Previously one could argue the poppy functioned as a simulacra (Baudrillard 2004) of patriotism. Post-Tower of London  however there is a significant shift in their symbolic value; war, entertainment and spectacle have converged to tinge the poppy with an almost ‘Hunger Games’ (Collins, 1996) symbolism The poppy has become the white rose of President Snow.  In retrospect, Paul Cummins work appears to function as a seductive spectacle (Foucault, 2008) manipulating public opinion and justifying the actions of the then government in sending hundreds of thousands of citizens to their death.

I see two options to improve the display of Paul Cummins work in the V&A. Option one would be to remove the poppies from the ‘Make/Believe’ exhibit and display them in close proximity to the existing first world war memorial near the front entrance of the museum and label them:

Ceramic Poppies,  Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, Paul Cummins for The Tower of London, Historic Royal Palaces, London (2014)

Option two would keep the poppies in situ but alter the text to:

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

 Tower of London Poppy Memorial , The Tower of London, Historic Royal Palaces, London (2014)

 The V&A purchased 16 ceramic poppies by artist Paul Cummins from this poignant and dramatic installation.  Commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, each of the 888,246 flowers represented a British or Colonial military fatality. 

 Each ceramic poppy was painstakingly handmade under Paul Cummins’ direction.   No two are identical, emphasising the individuality of the Fallen. The connection between individual flowers and mass interaction is key to all Paul Cummins’ work

Supplementary Media


  • Baudrillard, J.,  Glaser, S.F. (ed.)2004. Simulacra and Simulation.  University of Michigan Press.
  • Collins, S. 1996. The Hunger Games.  Scholastic.
  • Foucault, M. 2008. The Spectacle of the Scaffold. Penguin