Jonathan Schofield on a Manchester City Council report that says, "we got it wrong"

The £1m Peterloo Memorial, between Manchester Central and the Midland Hotel, was unveiled in 2019 with a whimper not a bang. It’s a mess as we highlighted in our discussion of the piece and a disaster when it comes to equality for disabled people

Now the work is to become an example, not just locally but nationally, of failure in delivering public art allied to public commemoration.

We have held our hands up that mistakes were made in developing the Peterloo Memorial

The Peterloo Massacre in 1819 involved the North West establishment setting militia (aka the yeomanry) on people peacefully protesting about a lack of the vote and of parliamentary representation. Eighteen people were killed, hundreds were injured. Peterloo over the years has magnified and come to represent more generally the fight for a fair society and equal rights. 

17 June Peterloo Massacre In 1819
The Peterloo Massacre in 1819 has become a key symbol in the fight for equal rights

Strange then that international "star" artist Jeremy Deller came up with a monument where access to the top is impossible for the disabled. As an incredulous Mark Todd, a seasoned campaigner for disabled rights, told us at the time: “It’s astonishing; the hypocrisy of a memorial dedicated to those who marched demanding liberty and equality for all, being designed and built with inequality at its heart."

Todd went on to say: “This million-pound structure is a monument that's for the public to inhabit. It is not something to be looked at and not touched - it is something to be on. All the artist's impressions show it completely covered in people with a token wheelchair user sat at the bottom not taking part. The council are right to say this is ‘public art’ and guess what, we, the disabled, are the public too. We would like some of the million-pound budget spent on making it accessible to all Manchester citizens.”

17 June Peterloo Memorial And The Criticism Continues 2
The Peterloo Memorial and a lone person takes a look

That’s not going to happen.

The now memorial has defeated all attempts at remedy.

The council commissioned a report and say: “Despite the best endeavours of all involved it has not proved possible to come up with a viable solution.

“Several options involving various ramp or lift designs have been explored in detail but none have proved feasible. Five of the ramp designs produced by architects commissioned by the Council would either have had an overbearing impact on the monument, obscuring the details of the people who died as well as overshadowing its appearance, or required the use of a significant amount of extra land owned by Manchester Central Convention Complex and used during major events there. A further ramp design proposed by the accessibility campaign group faced the same issues. The other option, or a platform lift option, posed a range of technical and maintenance difficulties.

“An option for a temporary ramp to be used for planned events was also rejected, although there is still scope for this to be implemented if there is a request to do so.

“The report confirms that in the absence of any prospect of a workable and satisfactory permanent remodel solution for full accessibility the memorial will remain as it is.”

17 June The Dirty Peterloo Memorial That Simply Does Not Work
The Peterloo Memorial two years on from installation: it needs a bit of a scrub

The good news is lessons have been learned and Manchester City Council, and presumably all UK councils, won’t be as daft again. 

Deputy council leader Councillor Luthfur Rahman says: “We have held our hands up that mistakes were made in developing the Peterloo Memorial and that insignificant consideration was given to access issues as thinking around the design evolved.

“It’s a matter of regret that despite working together over almost two years we haven’t been able to come up with a viable solution to make the Peterloo Memorial fully accessible. 

“If we could go back and start right at the beginning again we would do things differently. But we can’t. All we can do is learn from this experience and demonstrate how we are putting those lessons into practice in current inclusive designs, such as the Glade of Light memorial, and in future projects. 

“While the time and effort spent on finding a full accessibility solution for the Peterloo Memorial hasn’t produced the result we all wanted it was not in vain because there will be a a positive, inclusive legacy to this process.” 

The Glade of Light Memorial is to those who died and were injured at the Ariana Grande concert at the Arena in 2017. 

At least the City Council have admitted they got things wrong, which shows the right attitude. 

However, the press release from the council may not be the end of the matter. Campaigners might continue the fight. As one of their number Morag Rose says: "The disabled people's campaign reiterate our belief that a permanent accessible solution is achievable. Personally I think it would be a huge shame for Manchester if such an important memorial remained inaccessible and discriminatory."

17 June Peterloo Memorial And The Glade Of Light
The Glade of Light Memorial will be close to Manchester Cathedral

Sadly, the Peterloo Memorial has failed in other ways too.

Deller said back in 2019: “It’s important for the memorial to not just be something to admire. It has to have a use for the public. It will articulate the story of Peterloo, but will also be a place of meeting and assembly.”

The council now say: “While the interpretation of the design brief resulted in an interactive element, which envisaged the memorial perhaps doubling as a ‘speaker’s corner’ or protest site, there is little evidence that this has proved the case in practice and there are more suitable alternative sites.”

A double fail then for a memorial which is also filthy after two years.

17 June Jeremy Deller The Artist Behind The Peterloo Memorial
Jeremy Deller, the artist behind the Peterloo Memorial

The problem seems to be in that trying to create a memorial and a public piece of art via a well-known artist you inevitably get a work which is more about the artist than the event it marks. The Peterloo Memorial would have looked good in an art gallery, probably in a temporary show, probably to be forgotten by now. 

What Manchester gained permanently in 2019 is a gaudy, confused stepped stone mound that excludes part of society still struggling for equal rights. This is a crying shame, not least, for the indefatigable campaigners who struggled long and hard to gain a commemoration marking this crucial national event. 

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.

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