Do Manchester’s monuments and statues do the city justice? Do we know what narratives they uphold? What stories should the city tell through its memorials? Monuments are often the source of friction and argument, an arena in which our memories of the past are contested and played out.
The Meteor’s Alex King spoke to Manchester Histories chief executive Karen Shannon and youth worker Kerin Morris about the politics of memory culture in Manchester, and the ongoing public consultation being run by Manchester Histories on behalf of Manchester city council on deciding what cultural artefacts we adorn our streets and public places with.
Do you have any concerns about types of memorials that are in Manchester?
I don’t have any concerns. Obviously, they exist, and they are there, and they’re a part of our history, part of our past. And the past also helps us to make sense of and know our future. Although I do feel they are there for a reason, but for a reason at that time in history, which might be different from the present. They’re there as part of our histories and our heritage. We were saying in the meeting [on 10 March] that a lot of people mentioned that. I think Kerin was also saying this regarding who actually takes notice of them.
I know a lot of young people were saying that as they walk through the city, they don’t notice them, or they’re just a part of the fabric, but I think it’s important to know why they’re there and telling these stories. And so what concerns us is what’s going to happen next, who decides in the future how we manage our public spaces, and who says what goes in there, and whose history is it anyway?
I don’t think it’s so much a concern, but I just think as well there’s a lot of untold stories throughout Manchester that could be better, not only preserved, but showcased. Working with young people, a lot of the feedback was like Karen was saying. A lot of them are unnoticed, or they’re very dated. There’s a lot more we can do now, the ones that they only really took notice of were the bees, and that’s not only because it happened within their time, but how they look and what they represent as well. I think there’s also a lot of cultures, and a lot of work and creatives in Manchester that probably we could showcase and put on a platform as well as the others. I wouldn’t say get rid, but I would definitely create more.
I think it’s interesting around representation, because a lot of feedback from the consultation was that there isn’t enough diversity in the statues as well, so say for example women, we only have two women statues: Emmeline Pankhurst and Queen Victoria. You don’t see statues of maybe disabled people or LGBT people. I mean there is Alan Turing but there’s kind of…
It’s minimal, isn’t it?
There isn’t a good representation at the moment of statues, memorials, or place names that you can see yourself in. So you don’t necessarily connect if you can’t see somebody like you, if there’s no role models. Kerin, you were saying about Marcus Rashford, young people were saying ‘why don’t we have a Marcus Rashford statue?’
Yes, and you get some debate, because some people were asking who we should stay away from, certain people are more about what they’ve done, or a positive change they’ve made. But yes, young people were more concerned with the fact he’s a role model for young black boys, or where he’s come from, his social class, and what he did with the government and making them make a change instead of you know, just supporting the food banks. I think young people are very aware; I think we’ve just got to give them more of a platform and more of a space and an invite for them to have an input.
So in terms of the process, how can people have an input in this consultation, what do they need to do?
The consultation on Wednesday was more of a discussion workshop, so that’s obviously finished now. People can fill out the survey as well, which is on Manchester City Council’s website, and that’s to again gather people’s ideas and thoughts around public spaces, what goes in there, and there’s also a possibility for people to sign up to a video box, or people can send in their own videos. So the process is the survey, the consultation, and these video boxes. The videobox sessions are on Sunday [21 March], so people can go on Eventbrite and book themselves a space. If they don’t want to do that, people can record themselves and send them in.
So these are the ways you can get involved: survey, discussion, videobox. Hopefully with that, you give people the opportunity to connect in different ways. We felt the discussions were really important, so the smaller discussion groups we had as part of the consultation were really crucial in terms of getting people together to discuss why they thought this was important in the first place, what can change, and their future thinking around public spaces: who owns them, what should go where.
This is all part of a bigger review so that Manchester has a public art strategy, to help to answer some of these questions. So when people are requesting to put things up in the future, who decides what they are, with more participation, more collaboration, and involving the public and communities in some of that decision-making, which we think is really important.
My colleague Katy Preen was at the 10 March event, and she mentioned there had been a point raised about the culture war aspect of this, in terms of it being construed as the removal of history, for example. How do you counteract that kind of argument, and how are you going to convey to people that you’re not rewriting anything; that actually there is buy-in from people?
I think personally it is about people’s willingness to be accepting and open about our truth, in terms of our history moving forward. The world changes, I don’t think it’s so much of getting rid, but we can do stuff to make people aware of what a statue actually stands for, because we might have a statue up of someone who, with everything at the time, with everything they did, we felt was right back then. But as times changed, we found out other things about them that actually we don’t want to represent. For me personally, I don’t think it’s about taking away, but adding and making it more informative, so we can really own our past.
I would tend to agree on that as well. Again, just around collaboration and being more open and finding the truth of our history and not being afraid to tell it, not being afraid to tell contested histories or uncomfortable histories. You can’t hide it under the carpet; it exists, but how do we interpret that in new ways, and ways that can engage with communities and people for them to find out about their history and heritage of Manchester. It’s about interpretation as well, and how we might tell these different narratives, which is an important part of all of our histories. You get a much richer understanding of the past.
I think a good example of that is the Windrush generation. You don’t really see much of that represented, and growing up I never knew that history unless I spoke to family, and I think that’s something that definitely should be represented throughout Manchester. There’s all the different cultures, all the different races that have had a positive impact, in not only building up the country, and making great change, but their story as well. I feel like it’s very much forgotten, or it’s brushed aside until it’s Black History Month or a time when people want to celebrate, or it’s Carnival.
Regarding the Peterloo memorial, there’s been quite a lot of frustration because it’s seen as being exclusionary towards disabled people. Do either of you have any thoughts on whether that is a valid criticism, or whether there are any lessons to be learnt from that?
Well, there’s always lessons to be learnt, going through different processes, and I guess with the Peterloo memorial, maybe the approach to it wasn’t the right one at that time, and we’ve learnt from that and we need to move forward now. We understand that in the end, it wasn’t accessible to the disabled community and that’s not right. The actual memorial itself was representing a moment in our history around democracy and freedom, and the right for people to vote, so it was meant to be a memorial that was open for everyone. And unfortunately it didn’t happen in that way because disabled people can’t access it. So thinking about that, it is not a good representation of history if it’s not accessible to all.
And I think it’s a difficult point that it wasn’t done in the way it should have been done, but the only thing I can say is that we’ve learnt from it, and we have to learn that lesson. And a part of the thinking about how we go forward is we’re not going to do that again, because we know it doesn’t work. There are new ways we can work together to make sure that doesn’t happen again, and I think that’s a part of why the consultation is so important, to look at things like that, that potentially haven’t worked. So, it’s again, looking at the past and looking at new ways of doing it and moving forward.
I totally agree with you, it was definitely a learning process, and I think that’s going to be the same with a lot of things moving forward. There’s also a lot of statues and memorials now that aren’t accessible to all, and it’s not just wheelchair users, it’s the visually impaired [and others], you know there’s lots of different aspects I think we can improve on that we could definitely take note of, but I think the positive is we’ve seen where it can be better and what should be done. And I just think this is a moment we really need to take charge from and say “do you know what, let’s make sure”; that’s why I think the discussion aspects [of the consultation] are really great because you can get so many people’s input, so you don’t miss anyone.
Do you have anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to get on the record?
Just that people have still got the opportunity to say something. Please still get involved, there is an opportunity for people to get involved through videobox or the survey. Unfortunately we’re not doing any more public consultations, we’ve done a couple now, we’ve done some more behind the scenes as well as with younger people and other smaller groups.
And as we move through however many years, in two or three years, we hope that we’ll have further conversations once the public strategy is out as well. This is the beginning of a long journey, and it’s not going to be a quick fix. There has to be some mature conversations, and there have to be some ways forward, and that’s not going to happen overnight. We’re in it for the long term, and I think it’s important to note that this is just the beginning of something, not the end.
To take part in the online survey into Manchester’s public realm adornments, that is running till 22 March 2021 – click here
Take part in a recorded video session to share your views on the statues, monuments, place names & plaques in Manchester’s public spaces on Sunday 21 March, 2 – 4:30pm – click here
Read Katy Preen’s report on the event on 10 March – click here
Sign up to The Meteor mailing list – click here.
Feature Image: Manchester Histories