Memorials and the process of memorialisation have been the subject of intense public and academic debate in recent years. In 2015, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign sought to remove statues of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town and Oriel College, Oxford. More recently, controversies surrounding confederate memorials in America have reminded us of the highly charged and intense debates that public statues can elicit. These events underline the public resonance and contested nature of both memorialisation and historical memory. On the one hand, memorials form part of the historical record and are physical reminders of the people and values past societies held dear. On the other, the values and people represented is fixed at the point of construction. If contemporary audiences no longer feel reverence for what or who is being commemorated, they might question the validity of such memorials, and call for either their reinterpretation or complete removal. The removal of public statues can make the historian uneasy and raises issues surrounding the cleansing of the public record. Faced with this prospect, the preference seems to lean towards the reinterpretation of memorials instead of their complete destruction. However, memorials remain an important part of our commemorative culture.
Magna Carta, a document sealed by King John at Runnymede in 1215 at the behest of his revolting Barons, was designed to avert civil war. In its time, it was a complete failure and it was annulled almost as soon as it had been sealed. The text of the charter, however, endured, and its sealing continues to resonate in British society and culture to this day. But the legacy of Magna Carta has been protean and characterised by its capacity to lend authority to wildly differing worldviews. It was, for example, cited in justification for the causes of both radical reformers such as Francis Burdett and John Wilkes, and to parliamentarians. Attempting to explain the charter’s very broad appeal in 1965, J.C. Holt summarised its legacy as the ‘history of an argument’. Given the complex nature of Magna Carta’s legacy, the process of memorialisation has been almost inevitably difficult because of the numerous ways in which the charter has been interpreted over the past eight centuries. The complexity of the document has by no means prevented its memorialisation, however, and in 2015 two installations were unveiled in the fields at Runnymede, close to where we believe the charter was originally sealed. Each sought to physically represent and engage with the charter and its broader legacy. The result was the unveiling of two very contrasting installations.
The first memorial, supported by Runnymede Borough Council, took the form of a statue of Queen Elizabeth II. The four-metre tall statue, situated on the curved bank of the River Thames looking towards Windsor, was the gift of a newly formed charity, Runnymede Magna Carta Legacy. As early as 2010 the Council had been vocal supporters of the anniversary and had actively pushed for the construction of a Magna Carta interpretation centre at Runnymede. But by the summer of 2014, following two failed Heritage Lottery Fund applications, the Council was at risk of not making any meaningful contribution to the anniversary celebrations. It was at this stage that the Council was approached by RMCL about the prospect of the gift – the statue of the Queen. The offer was greeted with a mixed response by the borough councillors, and some were quite critical. Much of the criticism of the offer centred on one key issue: the suitability of a statue of the current monarch to commemorate a document many believe was deeply anti-monarchical. Despite these protestations, RMCL continued to develop their proposals. By March 2015 no clear decision had been made and it was decided that the plans would be put to a public consultation. The public response to the consultation was limited, with less than 55 respondents in total. However, the majority of those that replied indicated that they were against the erection of the statue. The council ignored their objections, pointing to the insignificant number of respondents as justification.
On the morning of the 14th June, 2015, in front of a small gathering of invited guests, including the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, and local MP, Philip Hammond, the completed memorial was unveiled. For many members of the public the Statue of the Queen remained divisive and historically incongruous. Those most opposed to the project felt that it was completely inappropriate, and decried it as a desecration of democracy. However, the memorial also had its supporters, who stressed that the statue was not a celebration of Queen Elizabeth II. Instead, they suggest that it deliberately contrasted the absolute monarchy upon whom the charter was imposed to the modern constitutional monarchy of today.
The memorial itself does not offer much in the way of interpretative explanation. The little description that does exist echoes and reinforces the view that the sealing of the charter was the first moment on a centuries-long journey toward the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. Inscribed in the stone pathway that connects the river to the statue is a ‘democracy timeline’ that highlights significant evolutionary milestones from Britain’s democratic heritage. These democratic moments sit alongside a role of monarchs and rulers which is intended to provide political and historical context for the gradual evolution of democracy. As a method of engaging and educating the public about Magna Carta and its legacy, the success of the memorial is questionable. The memorial is quite traditional in the sense that it clearly embodies and represents a specific view of the charter – one that might to some seem historically incongruous for many and those that visit the statue learn little about Magna Carta’s history or the nuances that shape its legacy.
The second memorial or public artwork, was unveiled by HRH the Duke of Cambridge on Monday 15th June 2015. Its interpretative and creative approach to the charter and its legacy could not have been further removed from that of the Queen’s statue. Created by the internationally acclaimed artist and sculptor Hew Locke, The Jurors was commissioned and financed – at great public cost – by Surrey County Council, which had invited artists to tender for the commission. Locke was notified of his success in the summer of 2014; he had under a year to complete the project and so needed to work quickly. His pitch drew from Clause 39 (trial by peers) of the 1215 charter and featured 12 bronze chairs, representing the demotic concept of the jury. The fronts and backs of the chairs became his canvas and he used these to depict moments from across history. His artwork incorporates symbols and imagery that represent the law and explores the struggle for freedom alongside the evolution of human and environmental rights.
Locke was presented with the challenge of selecting the 24 scenes to depict on the chairs, a task he apparently found extremely difficult. Partly, this was a result of his passion for history; indeed, he has said that if he had not been an artist he would have been a historian. This passion fuelled a detailed level of research not normally undertaken for his art, in an effort to present the most nuanced interpretation of the subject matter. He also hoped the sculpted chairs would encourage those who visited them to question accepted societal norms. Some scenes, such as Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, came to him quicker than others, and he recalls that representing women’s rights approprirately was difficult; as a man he wanted to avoid being cliché or making an overt feminist statement.
The twelve chairs appear unassuming as they stand facing each other at Runnymede. When empty, their presence effortlessly reminds the public of the events of 1215 without compromising the beauty of the memorial’s surroundings. As the artwork’s dedicated website explains:
The chairs seem to be awaiting a gathering, discussion or debate of some kind: an open invitation from the artist for the audience to sit, to reflect and, to discuss together the implications of the histories and issues depicted.
The Jurors has received much critical acclaim for the thought-provoking way the subject has been approached and carefully framed. The scenes depicted are both universal and multi-cultural, ranging from the Confucian Principles of the Han Dynasty of 206 BCE to Tim Berners Lee and his call for a digital Magna Carta in 2014. The completed installation engenders a sense of multi-cultural inclusivity that the Queen statue does not, a fact that separates The Jurors with other more traditional memorials. Its multi-culturalism did not happen by chance. Instead it came about because of Locke’s vision for the project and the sensitivity to which he approached his research.
However, set within the context of recent public discourse on memorials, the underlying creative principles of The Jurors offer new methods of memorialisation for the 21st century. Firstly, Locke did not want his artwork to be merely, as he termed it, ‘a collection of heroes’ and he intentionally included figures and moments in history that would stimulate public debate and divide opinion. The figures and values represented on the artwork are neither glorified nor celebrated but simply left there for public reflection and consideration. By adopting this approach, the problem of remembering past heroes, such as Cecil Rhodes, is somewhat negated. Secondly, Locke maintains that his artwork is only truly complete once people are sitting on the chairs, discussing and debating the issues and histories depicted. The purpose of his artwork then is to encourage public debate and reflection rather than present its audience with a specific, non-negotiable, interpretation.
Unsurprisingly, both installations will have their supporters and critics, and as such they reflect the contested nature of history and memorialisation. However, as questions concerning the nature and purpose of memorialisation continue to dominate public and academic discourse, one feels that Locke’s innovative artwork provides a method of remembrance that will be of more use to an increasingly historically aware and critical public. In comparison to the statue of the Queen, the conversations which The Jurors inspires are much less restricted, open to the evolution of public values and conversations across time, whilst remaining multi-culturally inclusive.
Steven Franklin is a doctoral student and teaching fellow at the Department of History, Royal Holloway, University of London. His thesis explores the evolving historical interpretations, commemorations, and public understandings of Magna Carta in the modern period. Steven will be giving an IHR Public History seminar on the theme of this blog-post at Senate House on Wednesday 25 October. All are welcome to attend.