Jonathan Schofield and a new plan to fix a flawed memorial

He might be an internationally renowned artist but Jeremy Deller has been ditched by the Peterloo Memorial Access Campaign. As we reported here Manchester City Council, after consulting the artist, held up their hands, and in their report more or less said, "hey, we’ve tried to work out ways to make the memorial accessible to disabled people but there’s nothing we can do, very sorry, but you know what, lessons have been learned".

I think it’s time for the people of Manchester to sort this out

The background to this is simple. In 2019 a million-pound memorial was unveiled to mark the famous incident in August 1819 when mounted yeomanry charged a peaceful protest which had gathered to complain about the lack of Parliamentary representation and to call for universal male suffrage. 18 people were killed and hundreds were injured. Known as the Peterloo Massacre it has become, over the years, a generalised symbol representing social justice and equal rights.

The problem was Jeremy Deller’s work when it was revealed had left out the equal rights bit. The stepped design was meant to evoke, or even be used as, a sort of raised speaking mound. The problem was it was impossible for disabled people to scale. So much for social justice.

17 June Peterloo Memorial And The Criticism Continues 2
The present Peterloo Memorial with no access for disabled people

After almost two years of talking to Jeremy Deller and architects the council, last week, decided nothing could be done to improve access. This non-plan was supposed to have been endorsed at a council meeting on 22 June. But it didn’t work out like that. Campaigners won a reprieve.

As the Peterloo Memorial Access Campaign say: ‘After lobbying from our campaign, Manchester City Council reversed its decision that nothing can be done to make the Peterloo Memorial accessible and that “no alterations will be made to the original design". The decision to change tack and work with campaigners on a new design was met with a ripple of applause by local councillors and delight by local campaigners. The City Council are hoping to meet campaigners as early as next week.”

Mark Todd, of Peterloo Memorial Access Campaign, puts it more bluntly: “We tried to work with the artist Jeremy Deller on a solution but frankly his heart (and his art) wasn’t in it. I think it’s time for the people of Manchester to sort this out and give us a fitting memorial to those who fought and died for equality back in 1819. We believe that our proposal, titled The March to Peterloo!, will make that possible.”

June 24 Proposal Plan
The plan the Peterloo Memorial Access Campaign would like the council to consider

Working with an architect the campaigners have come up with an artful ramp. It looks good and more to the point looks like it should work.

Previous solutions have looked clumsy. The March to Peterloo ramp wants to avoid that, thus it attempts to be “delicate in appearance and keeps its interface with the existing memorial to a minimum. The ramp should not be supported by a plethora of bulky, stilt like supports. Rather the design should seek to reduce the number of columns required.”

This idea need not take up too much of Manchester Central’s forecourt either wrapping itself around the memorial from east to south before sweeping north to the top of the Deller design.

June 24 Proposal For Peterloo Image
How the Peterloo Memorial proposal will look in section

The campaigners also want to describe Peterloo in a more engaging and colourful manner. The present memorial is curiously passive. The idea they put forward of a timeline covering the events of that day in August 1819 running up the surface of the new ramp is excellent.

There are ideas to let technology do some work too.

“We believe the timeline could broadcast as people run their hand along one of the handrails or a recording could be played of different sounds of the day including the general noise of the crowd; cavalry charging; speeches; rallying cries. [Another idea would be for] words of importance to Peterloo such as "Liberty" to light up at night on the underside of the ramp. This could be done using gobos or projections. The same system could be used to light up the memorial at night.”

June 24 The Peterloo Memorial Ramp Timeline
The ramp surface could have a timeline of Peterloo

There are big hurdles in front of the campaigners before any changes and improvements can be made. Councillors and the city will have to buy into the idea and approve the plans. That’s the first problem to overcome. The second problem might be harder again. Funds will have to be raised to complete the work as it seems there will be no council money involved.

Yet, what the campaigners are doing here is important. 

Citizens must be active and not cede all the initiative to  councils, agencies and other ‘official’ organisations but when the cause is right, or one in which they firmly believe, they should take responsibility for it themselves. After all that’s what the people who gathered at Peterloo were doing 202 years ago. Good luck to the Peterloo Memorial Access Campaign and let's wish all the best for a successful March to Peterloo. 

Jonathan Schofield is a writer and tour guide in Manchester. He will be doing a Peterloo Massacre tour later in the year on the anniversary, Monday 16 August. A full list of his Manchester tours is available.

Read next: The Peterloo Memorial farce: a lesson without remedy

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