Runnymede: Exploring Legacies of Rebellion in a Field in Suburban Surrey

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King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta by rebellious barons at Runnymede in 1215 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Apart from playing host to Royal Holloway, Egham’s other claim to fame is Runnymede, the meadow by the river Thames where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215. It is a significant location in British history, as well as the history of democracy more generally. there are several memorials located on the meadow, maintained by the National Trust. Despite studying at Royal Holloway for over 7 years, I visited the memorials for the first time a few weeks ago.

As you would expect, there is a memorial to Magna Carta at Runnymede. What you might not expect is that it was paid for by American lawyers. The memorial was funded by the American Bar Association, a kind of union for lawyers. Built in 1957, the aesthetics remind me of Captain America. A sloping paths leads from the meadow up to the classical columns, which are surrounded by 10 English oak trees. Magna Carta as a symbol has provided hope and inspiration to campaigners and radicals for hundreds of years. I think in some ways it is more important to Americans than the English, as it is cited as a basis for the American constitution and the Bill of Rights. There certainly are a lot of American connections on Runnymede meadow. As well as the Magna Carta memorial there is the JFK memorial nearby, and an oak tree planted in soil fro, Jamestown, Virginia, which was the first permanent English settlement in America.

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The Magna Carta memorial was built in 1957 and is maintained by the Magna Carta Trust (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

2015 marked the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. As part of the celebrations, a new piece of art by Hew Locke was installed at Runnymede. Entitled The Jurors, the artwork consists of 12 bronze chairs, each decorated with images and symbols of struggles for freedom and rights. You can pick up a leaflet explaining what each of the chairs represent, and providing a bit of information about the artist and the work’s commission. This leaflet states that “The Jurors is not a memorial, but rather an artwork which challenges us to consider the ongoing significance and influences of Magna Carta.” I found this interesting, and it got me wondering about the difference between a memorial and a piece of art. I would think that a good memorial is just as capable of making people think as art is. From my perspective, I enjoyed searching the chairs for images and symbols I recognised, such as the portrait of Mary Prince, a lesser-known anti-slavery campaigner.

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The Jurors (2015) by Hew Locke is designed to encourage to sit and think or discuss the images and issues represented on the chairs (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The other large memorial is for John F. Kennedy, President of the United States from 1961 until his assassination in 1963. After his death, the British government wanted to establish a memorial somewhere in the UK. They chose Runnymede because of the association with freedom and democracy. The land on which the memorial sits was given to the United States, so when a visitor passes through the entrance gate they are stepping onto American soil. The memorial itself is full of symbolism; 50 steps represent the 50 states, two stone seats represent the King-Queen/ President-Consort relationship, a hawthorn represents Kennedy’s Catholicism, and the overall theme is that of life, death, and progress, taken from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The wide range of metaphors and analogies seem messy on paper, but when I visited the different elements seemed to fit together well; I got a sense of peace and harmony.

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The JFK memorial has a lot of interesting symbolism involved in its design, and is a lovely place to sit and think (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I visited Runnymede meadow the day after the US presidential election. Despite the busy A308 running alongside the meadow,  it is a wonderfully tranquil place to be, especially on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in late autumn. Visiting the memorials gave me a chance to reflect on the events on the previous day. I was not surprised about Trump’s election, the Brexit vote in the summer has taught me to take nothing for granted in politics, but I was shocked. As I sat on the benches of the memorials I wondered what JFK would make of Donald Trump. I also thought about how Trump relates to the ideals that the magna carta has come to embody; he is a product of democracy, but I fear for his impact on freedom and civil rights. Whatever happens, Runnymede meadow will remain a lovely place to spend a few hours, whether you need a place to think or just somewhere to walk the dog.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “The Jurors.” No date, accessed 06 January 2017. Available at  http://artatrunnymede.com/

National Trust. “Memorials at Runnymede.” No date, accessed 06 January 2017. Available at https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/runnymede/features/memorials-at-runnymede

Olive Evelyn Awcock, 1926-2016

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My Nan and I at a family Christmas party in 2012 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

At the beginning of December, my grandmother passed away. Olive Evelyn Awcock was stubborn, blunt, and wonderful, and she will be sorely missed by my entire family. Born in nearby Rottingdean, Nan lived in Brighton for most of her life. She married her childhood sweetheart, John, and they were together for more than 50 years. They had two children, Hilary and Graeme, my Dad. I knew her as Nan though, and it was a role she performed very well. Since her passing I have spent a lot of time reflecting on my memories of Nan, and I was surprised to find a lot of connections between her and my politics.

Nan was not one to mince her words, or hold back on her opinions. The two of us frequently differed in our political opinions, although we did agree in not liking or respecting most leading politicians. I mostly chose not to engage her in political debate, because she was my Nan and it didn’t really feel right. We all found her intransigence desperately frustrating at times, but it was one of her defining characteristics and we loved her for it.

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My sister Emily and I with Nan at my cousin Ben’s wedding in 2013 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Nan was not what you might call a radical, but I think in her own way she embodied feminist ideals. She was fiercely independent. My grandfather was in the Royal Marines, so was frequently away, and Nan had to look after my Dad and Aunty on her own. This included a two-and-a-half year stint in Malta in the late 1950s, when my Dad was just 10 months old. It must have been terrifying to move to a new country with two young children, leaving behind the support networks that she had in Brighton. She was also keen to have her own income independent from my grandfather, so worked in a local post office for more than a decade before her retirement. She tried to instil that desire for independence in her grandchildren. It was one of her biggest regrets that she never learnt to drive, so frequently had to depend on others to get around. As such, she helped every one of her grandchildren who wanted to learn to drive to do so. These are perhaps not the actions of your stereotypical feminist, and I very much doubt she would have described herself as such. However her attitude was one which I think any feminist would be proud of.

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My Dad, my grandparents, and I on a day out, probably some time in the mid-90s (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

Despite my Dad already having achieved a PhD, I don’t think she really understood what one was, or what it entailed. Nevertheless, she had strong opinions on my topic, and never failed to let me, or the rest of my family, know what they were. Nan was more than a little surprised when I decided to study for a PhD on the historical geography of protest in London. She was concerned that it meant I must be a “closet red,” and it didn’t fit with her opinion of me as a gentle, kind, shy young woman. In a way, she was right. I am scared of protesting, and terrified by the prospect of getting arrested. I do go on protest marches, but I have always been too nervous to participate in more daring ways than that. I strongly believe in the need for protest and social movements, and I hope I will someday find a form of activism that I am comfortable with. In the meantime, I feel like studying protest, as well as being enjoyable and engaging, is a way in which I can comfortably contribute to the ongoing struggles and conflicts.

Nan and I shared many traits. I too am stubborn, and like to be independent. I am not as blunt when voicing my opinions, but I think that the elderly, like children, can get away with saying things that most people cannot, so perhaps that is a trait that I will develop with age. Everyone that we love impacts us in ways that are hard to define, and it is through the characteristics I have inherited from Nan that she will remain with me.

IWM North

On a recent visit to Manchester I visited the northern branch of the Imperial War Museums (IWM) in Trafford. I liked the museum, and enjoyed making comparisons with the IWM site in south London. The IWM North was opened in 2002 as the IWM’s first (and only) branch in the north of England. It receives around 300,000 visitors a year. In comparison, the IWM London is visited almost one million times annually. The museum’s focus is people, and how they have been affected by conflict.

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The Imperial War Museums North was designed to mimic the effects of war. The building is meant to represent a shattered globe (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The IWM North is a striking, modern building, purpose-built and designed by Polish architect Daniel Libeskind, who also designed the Ground Zero site in New York. It is very different from the IWM London, which is housed in the former building of the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark, built in 1815. The London building is flooded with natural light from the roof of the atrium, which stretches the entire height of the building. In contrast, the IWM North building was designed to be disorientating, in order to give the visitor a taste of the effects of war. There are no windows in the entrance hall or main exhibition space. It works; I didn’t like the interior of the building when I first walked in, it felt oppressive and disjointed. However, I thought the main exhibition space on the first floor was well-suited to its purpose, even more so when I discovered it was meant to be disorientating.

The permanent exhibitions are all housed in one space. They are arranged chronologically, from 1914 to the present. Dotted around the space are six ‘silos’, enclosed spaces that focus on specific themes such as ‘Women in War’, and ‘Impressions of War’. Every hour the entire space is taken over by ‘Big Picture’ shows, audiovisual presentations that fill the space with pictures and sounds from the IWM’s archival collections. The shows are immersive, and you have little choice to stop whatever you were doing and watch it. I quite like the idea that everyone in the space is watching, listening to, and thinking about, the same things.

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A Big Picture audiovisual show in the museum’s main exhibition space (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The museum’s use of artefacts feels minimal, with lots of text and open space. This is in sharp contrast to the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) that I had visited the day before. MOSI is housed across five buildings close to central Manchester, several of which are chock full of planes, cars, motorbikes, trains and engines of various kinds. In contrast, IWM North felt almost sparse. I prefer this minimal approach; too many objects can make it difficult to take anything in.

The curatorial decisions in any museum can be controversial, but the representation of conflict and war must be particularly difficult. In some ways I think the IWM North makes better decisions than the IWM London, for example it is more inclusive of conflicts in which the British armed forces were not involved. In other respects, the IWM North makes some decisions that I think could have been improved upon. Like the IWM London, there is very little information on conscientious objectors and peace movements. Most of what there is is located in the ‘Women in War’ silo, implying it is only women who object to war and conflict. Also, the museum has some steel from the World Trade Centre on display. Whilst I do not necessarily think that it shouldn’t be there, I do think there should be some explicit discussion of the relationship between terrorism and war. The ‘War on Terror’ is a very different kind of conflict from the World Wars, the Falklands War, or the Gulf Wars, but the IWM North’s display does not acknowledge this.

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Part of the World Trade Centre on display in the main gallery space (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Over three days in Manchester I visited three museums. The People’s History Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry and the IWM North are all brilliant, and well worth a visit. The IWM North is certainly the most innovative in terms of architecture and display, and although my favourite has to be the People’s History Museum (I am fully prepared to admit bias here), the IWM North has to be one of the most intriguing museums I have ever been to.

Sources and further reading

Museum of Science and Industry. “About Us.” No date, accessed 1 January 2017. Available at http://msimanchester.org.uk/about

Tully, Lucy. “8 Things You Didn’t Know About the IWM North Building.” Imperial War Museum. No date, accessed 1 January 2017. Available at  http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/8-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-iwm-north-building

Wikipedia. “Imperial War Museum.” Last updated 11 December 2016, accessed 1 January 2017. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_War_Museum

Wikipedia. “Imperial War Museum North. Last update 11 December 2016, accessed 1 January 2017. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_War_Museum_North

The People’s History Museum

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The People’s History Museum is housed in an old pump house on the banks of the river Irwell in Manchester (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I have been studying the historical geography of protest for the last four years. For most of that time, I have wanted to visit the People’s History Museum. The problem was that I am normally in the south of England, and the museum is in Manchester. Last week, I visited Manchester and finally got to see the museum, and I was not disappointed!

The People’s History Museum started life as a collection of protest-related material belonging to a group of activists in the 1960s. They opened a museum in London in the 1970s, but it struggled financially. In the 1980s, the collection was rescued by Manchester City Council and Greater Manchester authorities, with some help from the TUC. In 1990, the People’s History Museum opened on Princess Street in Manchester, in the same building where the TUC had its first meeting, over one hundred years before. In 1994, the museum opened a second site at its current location—an old pump house on Bridge Street. In 2010, the museum relaunched in a restored and expanded pump house. Now the museum has several permanent galleries, a temporary gallery space, and meeting and conference rooms. It describes itself as “the national museum of democracy,” and receives around 100,000 visitors a year.

The permanent gallery spaces are arranged in a largely chronological order. The zones are colour coded, each colour chosen for its symbolism in radical culture (e.g. red for courage and revolution, blue for loyalty). The galleries are accessible, interactive, child-friendly, and well-paced. There is a nice balance between individuals, groups, and events, and between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics. I think it is important to highlight the connections between these elements, as it is all too easy to focus solely on one. Whilst the galleries begin with the Peterloo massacre, a local event, the rest of the museum covers the whole country. The museum presents itself as a national museum, and I think it lives up to that.

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The ‘Reformers’ section of Main Gallery 1. Each section is colour coded according to the symbolism of radical culture. Fittingly, green means reform (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

For me, there were two threads running through the galleries that connected everything together. The first was a series of videos about 5 generations of one family. With each family member, the videos and accompanying text explained what life was like for the individual, what rights and services they were entitled to, and whether or not they could vote. They demonstrated how the conflicts and struggles described in the displays affected people in very real ways, from working conditions to healthcare.

The second unifying thread running through the galleries was the banners. The People’s History Museum has one of the largest collection of protest banners in the country, and they are the only group that specialises in the restoration and preservation of these kinds of banners. There are banners on display in every area of the galleries, from the oldest surviving trade union banner, to a banner protesting the 2012 Bedroom Tax. Some are highly detailed, others were obviously made very quickly, but all are striking. They illustrate that whilst there have been many changes over the past two and a half centuries, there are also a lot of continuities in radical culture. Banners have provided a sense of identity and belonging for radical groups for decades.

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Some of the magnificent banners on display in the museum. The are spread throughout the gallery spaces, but banners do have their own devoted section in Main Gallery 2 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The museum has an open approach to curation which I like. The plaques describing items often explain how the items came into the museum’s collection. Many items were donated by activists or their descendants, and there can sometimes be a disconnect between the received history of an event and the stories that are attached to particular items and passed down through generations. All museums have to make decisions about the authenticity of the items in their collections, but most cover up this process. The People’s History Museum does not, asking the visitor to reflect on such issues—would you trust the descendants of a protester over historians? I liked this honesty, and appreciated the way it engaged visitors in the ongoing debate about how best to represent history.

The People’s History Museum is well worth a visit, even if protest is not something that particularly interests you. It is a museum of social history as well as radical history, and as I look back on 2016 it is a much-needed reminder that many of the rights and privileges we take for granted today had to be fought for, tooth and nail, by earlier generations. If we are not willing to fight, just as fiercely, to protect them, we will lose them.