1. Built environment
  2. Architecture & design
June 26, 2019updated 20 Jul 2021 2:22pm

What does Manchester’s statue boom tell us about the city?

By Chris Wetherell

Any visitor to Manchester in recent months will have noticed a rapidly changing city. The growing skyline is the most obvious feature, with empty car parks giving way to skyscrapers that wouldn’t look out of place in London.

But turn your eyes down and you’ll witness another construction boom spreading through the streets. Statues.

Manchester, like most cities, is no stranger to these: you can’t move in Britain without bumping into an imposing visage of some modestly influential Victorian. But what’s interesting about these new statues and sculptures is how they compare to their predecessors, and what they say about the modern city. Let’s have a look at a few of the newcomers.

Victory Over Blindness

At the entrance of Piccadilly station, visitors are greeted by the first of the new generation of memorials: Victory Over Blindness. Influenced by the iconic painting “Gassed” by John Singer Sargent, it depicts a line of blinded soldiers leading their fellow comrades in procession.

Built at human scale and eye level, it uniquely shows wounded veterans forever changed by the horrors of war.

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Emmeline Pankhurst Memorial

Down the road in St Peter’s Square is the recently unveiled statue of Mancunian suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. It’s wonderful to see such an important local figure receive due attention 88 years after a statue was erected to her in London.

What’s great about this piece is how the chair she stands on acts as a pedestal, maintaining a natural feeling as crowds gather round her, as they did all those years ago.

Peterloo Massacre Memorial

Near the old Manchester Central Station, yet another memorial is under construction. Built to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, the memorial hopes to be more than something to simply observe.

Image: Jeremy Deller/Caruso St John Architects.

Designed in the shape of a hill with purpose built holes for flagpoles, it’s intended that the spot will become a gathering point for future protests. A positive civic space borne from the sorrow of a terrible event.

Bee in the City

Lastly, we have the much loved Bee in the City event that appeared last summer. Colourful and diverse, they’ve not only promoted the exploration of the city centre like a giant Easter egg hunt, but also emphasised a growing piece of the Mancunian identity: the worker bee.

Sadly many of the Bees were only temporary visitors, but some can still be found if you hunt around enough. 

So what do all these statues say about modern Manchester?

First of all, there’s a sense that Manchester is waking up to the local history and culture that surrounds it. As lovely and influential as Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington are, their statues don’t really say anything about the city or its people. There’s nothing to differentiate them from the million identical statues in every other British city.

Such Victorian era statues are often associated with royalty and southern political figures, far removed from the gritty north. In this way, modern 21st century statues are helping to fill a vital cultural gap that has been missing from the street-scape.

The statues and memorials being built today are also far more personal than those that came before. Long gone are the days when towering pedestals and stone-faced gazes were the norm. Instead they have been replaced by more intimate, creative pieces that interact with the public, rather than domineer over them. They shout modernity; tailor made for a selfie sharing, social media loving generation.

With this then comes a growing feeling of civic pride. As Manchester develops, its streets are slowly becoming places to stop and appreciate, rather than corridors to hurry through, as more unique displays take root. It’s a legitimately odd feeling to now see tourists stop and take photos outside of Piccadilly station. Perhaps not the next St Pancras or Lime Street, but a worthy improvement nonetheless.

So hats off to Manchester. No doubt the place is still getting back on its feet following the dark years of de-industrialisation, but the ongoing push to promote local identity and history in such a simple way is acting as a sure-fire method to rejuvenate one of the major cities of the north.

All photos courtesy of the author unless otherwise specified.

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