A conversation in time
A proposal for an interactive public art installation representing the historic tolerance and diversity of the City of Leicester
Leicester has a long history of social and religious tolerance. It is possible that this willingness to live alongside people with different ideas, beliefs and philosophies is related to its geographical location. Leicester was a frontier town in Roman times on the Fosse Way which for some time marked the northern extent of Roman rule in England. Then, in the 6th to 9th centuries, it was a trading centre in the Kingdom of Mercia, the 'middle' region between the differing influences of the north and the south, where various cultures merged and different languages were spoken.
Although Simon de Montfort expelled the Jews from the area of Leicester he governed, many other people preaching different doctrines have felt safe here. John of Gaunt gave protection to the dissident theologian John Wycliffe. Puritan preacher and writer John Bunyan, and Baptist preacher and missionary William Carey both found a safe pulpit in Leicester.
Similarly, those with differing political beliefs have found that their voices would be heard in Leicester. In the 19th century, the Independent Labour Party held rallies in Leicester's Market Place, and men and women of different philosophical and political stances were able to talk to each other, expounding their own beliefs including suffragettes, those who supported the temperance movement, and members of the Great Meeting who influenced the governance of the town for many years.
Since 1926, the city's motto has been Semper Eadem which transates as 'always the same' but has a more subtle meaning. It was the motto of Queen Elizabeth I. After the turmoil of the Reformation, it was used by her as an expression of stability, integrity and peaceful equanimity.
A modern transcription
could be 'Whatever happens, in good times and bad, I am the same. Whether you
are rich or poor, noble or common, in or out of favour, it is all equal to me.'
A conversation involves:
... talking and listening.
... challenging preconceptions.
... sharing knowledge and understanding.
Through sculpture and modern audio technology, we hear a conversation between several individuals from Leicester's past. The structure consists of four park benches arranged in an open rectangle with four or more sculpted individuals sitting on them.
People standing in the centre of the rectangle would hear a pre-recorded conversation. By walking towards each sculpture or bench, the voice of that figure would be enhanced, just as in real life where we can focus on one person in a room full of people conversing.
Resonance speakers are available which make use of the natural resonance of materials. This would enable sound to be provided without loudspeaker cabinets, so reducing the risk of vandalism and reducing maintenance to a minimum.
Displayed QR codes would link to explanatory material on the Leicester City Council 'Story of Leicester' website.
Until recent times, statues were high up placed on plinths and even in the middle of traffic systems, so the individuals depicted remained distant and sometimes aloof and disconnected from modern society. Many statues also lack interpretation so remain anonymous and irrelevant.
Whereas the meaning and message of a solitary statue may be misinterpreted, this work of public art would represent ideas, actions and beliefs. Visitors would be able to learn more about each figure by moving towards them and listening to a discussion which may even at times include disagreements.
We can hold conversations with our contemporaries, but what if we could bring to our conversation, people from the past?
Cultural and historical organisations in Leicester could be invited to nominate figures to take part in the Conversation. Nominations could outline the role the individual held in promoting, publicising or exemplying social, cultural and racial inclusion in the broadest definition of those terms.
The script for each historic person could be written by students at local schools guided by support material from the Story of Leicester website. The breadth of the subject matter would enable these projects to fit easily into the curriculum. Each school would be able to address a specific social issue represented by the people depicted. The scripts would therefore be the result of many additional conversations. The recording of trhe conversation could be managed by East Midlands Oral History Archive using the studios of BBC Radio Leicester.
Invite the public to nominate the people to be depicted. This could include publicity through social media in the same way that nominations are invited for Leicestershire County Council's Green Plaque scheme.
Leicester is creating new public open spaces as part of the plan to provide safe routes for pedestrians to connect areas of the city centre. Consequently, new locations for public art are becoming available alongside the city's traditional open spaces, These could include Town Hall Square, the Market Place and St Martin's Square, the heritage quarter and the two bus stations. Other options are New Walk, De Montfort Square near the Museum & Art Gallery, Magazine Square, Castle Gardens and Abbey Park.
Funding could be sought for the different stages in the project:
- Initial research, educational tie-in. and website material.
- Creating the public art - figures ansd benches.
- Sound recording and installation.
The following could be invited to support the project with grants:
- Leicester City Council
- Leicestershire Archaeological & Historical Society
- Heritage Lottery Fund
- Garfield Weston Foundation