I recently visited the World Museum and the Museum of Liverpool and, for the first time, my route took me past the Hilsborough Disaster Memorial at the lower western end of St John’s Gardens beside Old Haymarket road, just south of William Brown Street.
The story of the Hilsborough Disaster is shocking for the events that transpired at the crush within the Sheffield football ground that cost 96 lives on 15 April 1989. Just as shocking has been the protracted process by which families have sought justice for what happened. There was a cover-up by South Yorkshire Police and the media reports – most notably the headline of The Sun on 19 April 1989 – blamed Liverpool fans for the tragedy. The first coroners’ inquest ruled the lives lost as due to ‘accidental death’.
Sculpted by Tom Murphy and erected in 2013, this 7-foot tall cylindrical bronze monument is one of the latest of a diverse and multi-focal range of memorials established over the years to commemorate the Disaster. It is the only one in a public location in the centre of Liverpool (as opposed to those at football grounds in the city, in Sheffield, and elsewhere). For a fuller list of memorials, see here.
And this is the key point: its urban prominence and centrality are key to its inception, design and emplacement. This was a disaster affecting not only the families of victims, survivors, football supporters and clubs, but the people and institutions of Liverpool and its environs affected by the event and its aftermath. In 2013, the campaign for justice was still in full swing, following the High Court in 2012 quashing the original ‘accidental death’ rulings, but before the 2017 results of the second coroner’s inquest and prosecutions for a range of offences by those in South Yorkshire Police responsible for crowd-control on the day and the subsequent cover-up.
This monument is thus intended to be affective and effective. It aims to perpetuate memory and to honour those that died, allowing reflection on their lives had the tragedy not taken place. Yet it also forms a monumental constituent for ongoing remembrance and legal recognition of the disaster, the lives lost and the suffering it has caused for survivors.
The sculptors own notes about the memorial can be found here. I would add some further observations.
The most prominent part of the memorial is the text running around the top as much as the names of the dead and the figural art. It is so prominent it actually avoids comment from many, yet it clearly asserts a simple message:
WE WILL REMEMBER THEM
The drum-like form means that it cannot be seen – text or art – in its entirety. The monument has no single orientation as a result, and it must be encircled to be considered. There is no order – no sequence, although the ‘front’ is to the south and the text at the top takes you anti-clockwise to the east, north and then west, thus encouraging this direction of navigation. Is there a particular significance to an anti-clockwise direction: an inversion of the ‘natural’ course of time, taking us back to the event of 1989?
The ‘front’ has a Liver-bird within a wreath – the number 96 (the number of victims) is on its wing. Below is a dedicatory text and then a horizontal rail from which football scarves are suspended. On either side of this, there are two tablets with an alphabetical list of the victims and, in parentheses, their age of deaths.
I’d also note the prominent avian and fiery symbolism on the monument. Not only the aforementioned Liver Bird within the wreath, but also birds are perched around the names of the dead, and birds are flying up and around the mourners/weepers. Two Liver Birds also support an eternal flame. This has symbolism in itself, but also links the memorial in symbolic terms to the memorial at Anfield football ground where the names of the dead frame a real flame as a memorial focus.
The further material connection to football and remembrance is the representation of scarves – worn, suspended, held and tied in remembrance. These are joined by flags: held aloft and fallen in material mourning. This dimension is important, in particular since it connections the permanent memorials to the vast amount of ephemeral material culture deployed at annual memorial events up until the final one in 2016, and deposited at football ground memorials to remember the 96.
Spatially, and through its bas-relief frieze of figures of men, women and children (weepers/mourners), the monument is in ‘conversation’ with others. It is separate from others, discrete and seemingly alone. It isn’t cluttered by other memorials. However, despite this, I’d note its close proximity to a large assemblage of memorials to regiments, war and peace memorials close by and within St John’s Gardens. Given its figural representations, I think it is important to note parallels and spatial association with the Liverpool Cenotaph, not far away outside St George’s Hall.
A further point: lacking any steps the monument rises out of the pavement. There is no space afforded to ephemerality to gather. The cylindrical arrangement and vertical walls separate it out from a war memorial, and render it practically impossible for any wreaths, flowers or other votive offerings to augment the memorial. This is surely deliberate.
Having been critical of the banality of the Christmas truce memorial at the NMA, I was pleased to find a memorial that is all about people, not about sport, in remembering the Hilsborough Disaster.