The centenary of the end of the First World War will be marked by an exhibition on the history and significance of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance at the National War Museum in Edinburgh Castle.

Featuring loans from Poppy Scotland and the Lady Haig Poppy Factory, The Poppy: A Symbol of Remembrance explores the origins of the symbolism of the poppy from the famous poem, “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae and the earliest adoptions of it as a symbol of remembrance. It covers the first British ‘poppy day’ which took place in 1921 and the beginning of poppy production at Lady Haig’s poppy factory in Edinburgh in 1926.

The exhibition will run from 30 March 2018 to 27 January 2019. Admission is free with entrance to the Castle.

Lady Haig poppies
Poppies from the first year of production at Lady Haig’s Poppy factory in 1926

Patrick Watt, exhibition co-curator, said: “The First World War claimed many millions of lives.  Soldiers, sailors and airmen died overseas and were buried there, in many cases with no marked grave.  Without a body to bury, families could not observe normal funeral practices.  This, along with the sheer scale of the conflict, led to a new culture of grief, which was at once both national and personal and required symbolic representation.

“The poppy became that symbol, and gained an additional charitable function in the 1920s as their manufacture and sale became a way to raise funds for ex-servicemen and their families”.

A ceramic poppy, one of 888,246 displayed at the Tower of London in the 2014 exhibition, Bloodswept Lands and Fields of Red, introduces the conclusion of the exhibition, which explores how the symbolic legacy of the poppy has become contested in recent years through what some see as its politicisation. A film at the end of the exhibition will present interviews giving voice to a range of contemporary perspectives on these issues.

Elaine Edwards, exhibition co-curator said: “When the poppy was introduced in the 1920s, both its purpose and symbolic meaning were clear and widely accepted. That core function has not changed in that poppies sold continue to raise funds for ex-service personnel and their families.

“However, it’s fair to say that some perceptions and attitudes associated with the symbol of the poppy are more contested in the present day, both in the case of those who choose not to wear it because they disagree with what they feel it symbolises, and also in the way that some people and commentators respond to those who make that choice. That discussion is both interesting and relevant in relation to the historical context, and so we will present a range of those viewpoints in the exhibition through a series of filmed interviews.”

The exhibition contains personal effects and correspondence of First World War servicemen, including this Remembrance card in memory of Lance Corporal William Anderson, Seaforth Highlanders, killed in action 25 October 1918.

A notable recent controversy came as FIFA, the world football governing body, ruled that the poppy was a political symbol and, as such, could not be adopted into the strips worn by the national teams of the home nations during fixtures occurring on Remembrance Day in 2016. In an attempt to reach a compromise, armbands were worn which included the poppy, and one of those will be on display. In the event, the home nations’ football associations were fined by FIFA, although the decision has since been reviewed and the poppy was worn by the Scotland players for their friendly match with the Netherlands in November 2017.

The exhibition contains personal effects and correspondence of First World War servicemen, showing the impact the war had on families across the country. It will also explore the stories of American teacher Moina Michael, following whose efforts the poppy was adopted by the American Legion, and Frenchwoman Anna Guerin, who campaigned for the poppy to be adopted as an international symbol of remembrance.  Earl Haig supported Guerin’s idea of selling poppies to raise money for ex-servicemen and their families, the charitable purpose which poppies still serve today. The first poppy day was 11 November 1921, and the poppies sold that year were made by women and children in the war-ravaged regions of Northern France. A factory was established in London in 1922 by Earl Haig, followed by the Lady Haig factory in Edinburgh which opened in 1926.

The Poppy: A Symbol of Remembrance is the concluding element of National Museums Scotland’s programme of commemorative activities marking the centenary of the First World War, which has included events, publications, education and schools workshops and two other exhibitions. It is part of the WW100 programme of events in Scotland and the First World War Centenary Partnership, a national and international programme led by the Imperial War Museum. Get more information about the exhibition here.