This summer Manchester will mark the anniversary of a public pro-democracy demonstration on August 16, 1819, and its now infamous and bloody response from the authorities. In the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo (1815), such a violent and warlike scene on St Peter’s Field prompted the name Peterloo.
Some 200 years on and the city is responding to this anniversary with a range of heritage and creative programming, much of which is brought together by Manchester Histories. Mike Leigh’s film has already been released, plenty of new books about Peterloo are being published, and there will be a new permanent, public memorial near to the site of the massacre. There are also lots of exhibitions coming up in central Manchester that do more than simply re-tell the events of that day.
The People’s History Museum’s Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest might look like a traditional historical display at first, illustrated with first-hand accounts and museum objects. But it has cleverly used the anniversary to prompt a conversation not only about events two centuries ago, but also to ask questions about how we protest today. It is directly relevant to us in a time when protests about Brexit, Trump and climate change are important parts of our lives. Democracy still needs people to fight for it. Two-hundred years on, it’s just as important. If you’ve taken part in a protest or disruption, no matter how small, the museum wants to hear from you. Perhaps you could donate something to their protest lab?
The Portico Library on Mosley Street – built just 13 years before Peterloo – stands witness to that tragic day. From the windows on the first floor, one can almost see the site of the massacre. Its members included Captain Hugh Hornby Birley, who led the fatal cavalry charge, and also liberal founder of The Guardian newspaper, J.E. Taylor.
The exhibition Making History: Reading between the lines, from Peterloo to Meskel Square will display books and artefacts relating to the Manchester campaigners who became powerful leaders of both democratic and anti-democratic movements in 1819.
But rather than dwelling entirely on the historical, The Portico’s exhibition will also use its collection to provide context for new artworks. Ethiopian artist Robel Temesgen creates hand-written newspapers that confound the reader, slipping between pro and anti-establishment messages and exploring the role of printed information in the shaping of democracy. At the public exhibition launch (July 4) its pages will be ‘performed’ by local Amharic-speakers, who will interpret the texts in their own words. Whether the texts are being authentically translated will remain unknowable for non-Amharic-speaking visitors, inviting us to consider where power lies in relation to language, literacy and printed material.
Manchester Museum has taken a similarly international angle on Peterloo, marking not only the 200 years since the event, but also 100 years since the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh (April 13, 1919) when British troops opened fire on peaceful Indian protesters. The exhibition came about after the director visited the Partition Museum in Amritsar where the attack took place. The parallels between the two events led to the museums working together on the collaborative exhibition, creating most of the content over Skype calls and emails.
As part of the display in Manchester, artists The Singh Twins have created a large light-up artwork that references not only the events of April 1919 and the context of British colonial rule of India, but also the events of Manchester a hundred years before. Revisiting the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh, its causes and aftermath, the display explores what we remember, how we remember it, and also what we have forgotten, in India and the in UK.
From contemporary art to contemporary ceramics. Peterloo was one of the first major political events to be commemorated on transfer-printed pottery. Commemorative souvenirs for official events (like royal weddings) would be months in the planning, but at Peterloo items were made quickly to document the event immediately, using rushed process and techniques, sometimes misrepresenting the facts. Manchester Craft and Design Centre’s exhibition Misshaping Peterloo displays the ceramic work of Alex Sickling, inspired by the individuals who fought and died on the day, but it also looks at how and why we commemorate disaster and political events, sometimes finding humour in dark times.
After visiting, you might not look at a Manchester street vendor’s football scarf with today’s match date or a fast fashion t-shirt with a trending meme in the same way.
It’s impressive to see so many cultural organisations creating displays that don’t simply tell the story of August 16, 1819. Instead they are using that day as a catalyst to take visitors in a wide range of new directions – to contemporary protest, to Amharic newspapers, to British colonial history, to ceramic pots and more.
These exhibitions demonstrate to us that our history and heritage not only have a place in our understanding of Manchester, but also have wide-reaching repercussions across our world and society. The themes of democracy, protest and freedom of speech are just as relevant today as they were in 1819.
There are exhibitions this summer in the city and beyond at Manchester Central Library, John Rylands Library, Quarry Bank (National Trust), Tameside Local Studies Library, Touchstones Rochdale, Gallery Oldham, the Working Class Movement Library, St George’s Church (Mossley) and even at the Houses of Parliament in London. More information about these and a host of events are on the Peterloo1819 website.