The Royal British Legion, which owns the 30,000-tree arboretum, built the new centre following a successful fundraising campaign. Next to it is Heroes’ Square featuring commemorative paviors, engraved with cap badges or crests of the Royal Navy, the British Army, the Royal Air Force and City Livery Companies.
Heroes’ Square leads down to a new garden which features a sensory play garden, designed to be full of textures, scented foliage and natural materials. Pride of place is a sculpture by Sioban Coppinger, Blown Away, which uses the shape of laurel leaves cast in bronze to create the face of an unknown serviceman in order to pay homage to those whose lives are changed or ended by war.
The Remembrance Centre features an interactive exhibition providing a preview of the arboretum and an introduction to the concept of remembrance, funded with the help of a £2.85m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Visitors can explore the 330 memorials on site with an audio guide, and can learn from upgraded shelters across the arboretum that have been equipped with new interpretation featuring content from the new exhibitions.
It also has enhanced learning facilities which will allow school visitor numbers to grow from 15,000 to 25,000. The trees, plants and wildlife are set to become part of the learning team’s programme, and will be used to generate a greater understanding of Remembrance.
New exhibition galleries, restaurant and shop and separate coffee shop have also been added. Also launched last week was the Landscapes of Life exhibition, which looks at the history of remembrance from ancient burial mound rituals through to contemporary social media tributes. Visitors can 'travel' through a year of the arboretum, seeing the chaging seasons and learn more about some of the memorials in the grounds.
For children, there is a path of leaves to walk through which reveals a poppy field beneath. They are then encouraged to design their own memorial landscape using a range of natural features, animals, symbols and trees.
Chairman of the National Memorial Arboretum board Lt Col David Whimpenny said: "Opening the doors of our new Remembrance Centre to the public marks the culmination of years of hard work and it is fantastic to see our compelling vision become a reality. We look forward to welcoming the many thousands of visitors that we are now capable of accommodating, thanks to the new facilities."
Leader of Staffordshire County Council Philip Atkins said the council was incredibly proud to have the arboretum in Staffordshire.
"It’s wonderful to see the new Remembrance Centre and facilities now open. The arboretum is truly a world class centre of Remembrance and we look forward to welcoming many more visitors to our great county. With the National Memorial Arboretum, Commonwealth War Cemetery and German Military Cemetery on Cannock Chase, Staffordshire has become a focus for the nation’s commemorations."