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Simon Schama clashes with opponents of Potters Fields Park 9/11 artwork

London SE1 website team

Historian Simon Schama described the controversy about the proposed commemorative artwork for the 9/11 attacks in Potters Fields Park as "a collision of moral claims" at an emotionally charged consultation meeting on Monday night.

Simon Schama clashes with opponents of Potters Fields Park 9/11 artwork
The proposed location for the artwork is the triangular patch of grass outside City Hall

At the end of December Southwark Council's planning committee resolved to grant planning permission for the installation in Potters Fields Park of steel girders recovered from the wreckage of New York's World Trade Center.

The £600,000 sculpture by Miya Ando is intended as a permanent commemorative artwork to be unveiled to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The proposal had already been rejected by the Potters Fields Park Management Trust, which holds a lease on the riverside park, but the foundation persisted with the planning application.

At the planning committee meeting representatives of the 9/11 London Project were encouraged to carry out consultation with local residents and so 1,500 people were invited to Southwark Council's 160 Tooley Street headquarters on Monday night to hear historian Simon Schama explain why the project is so important.

The meeting was chaired by Sir Michael Oliver, who – as Lord Mayor of London in 2002 – had presented a bell cast in Whitechapel to the church of Trinity Wall Street on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

"It's not a memorial, it's an artwork," said Sir Michael, who described the proposed Potters Fields Park piece as "an assembly of the steel girders in the shape in which they fell".

Sarah Matthews, a member of the project team, explained why Potters Fields Park had been chosen.

"Firstly, its proximity to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge means that young people from across the world will visit it. And secondly, Southwark itself is a place that has always embraced a multicultural society," she said.

"Both these factors perfectly meet the project's educational objectives. And there isn't another park in London on a par with Potters Fields Park – with its central location and huge appeal – which doesn't have its share of monuments, statues and artworks within it."

Education advisor Jeremy Hayward set out the 9/11 London Project's plans to produce teaching resources for history, citizenship, art, english, drama and religious education lessons in schools. The project's promoters argue that this educational work and the artwork are inextricably linked.

Simon Schama quoted John Donne as he began his address to local residents.

He said: "If I did not think that the 9/11 Project and Miya Ando's monument, designed above all to act as a focal point for educating the young, was a translation out of atrocity into a different language I would not be here tonight and I would not be interested in supporting the project which I do with all my mind, all my sense of what moral civil society is and a lot of my heart too."

He added: "Historians – some of us at least – are committed to the notion that history's function is education through memory.

"It seems to me that if the enormity of 9/11 was directed at a group of private individuals, then the rights of the grieving not to be reminded of the misery and pain and horror of that moment are sovereign; are supreme; should never be contested.

He continued: "The attack of Mohamed Atta and others was not on a group of individuals. Ultimately it was on the idea of a secular, tolerant, pluralistic society itself.

"9/11 was carried out in the name of theocratic, homogeneous dictatorship. The plotters of 9/11 … were not shy of the point of the exercise; they wanted to terrorise us into submission.

"They wanted to [destroy] the defiant heterogeneous nature that is the glory of New York and latterly the glory of London."

He went on to describe "the great relish of living in a free place of many cultures and faiths".

Summing up his argument, he asked: "Do we want … in the name of a quiet life, in the name of the bucolic serenity of your city, to turn our face away from that? Do we want to make it a matter of purely private respect?

"Or is the integrity of the freedom of civil society in a great cosmopolitan place like this actually at stake?"

Professor Schama said that "it is imperative to the educational purposes of the project … that it is constructed from the physical material of catastrophe".

He described the proposed artwork as a "burning remnant" with a "redemptive panel" of reflective material.

The first speaker from the floor was local resident Janet Morris who said, to applause, that she commended the passion of the project but was "very, very disappointed" that the first public consultation was being held two months after planning permission had been granted.

"If it had been my choice I would have had this meeting at the first genesis," replied Professor Schama.

Julian Griffiths, chair of the Shad Thames Residents' Association, reminded the project's promoters that Potters Fields Park is enjoyed by many residents who live in flats without gardens and that the park's status as their local open space should be recognised.

He also expressed concerns that the artwork could become a rallying point for those who would see it as a trophy of a successful attack.

"I don't quite see how the particular siting of the piece will compromise the enjoyment of the park," said Professor Schama. "There's still a lot left."

He said to Mr Griffiths: "You would demolish the Holocaust memorials in Berlin and Vienna because of the possibility they might create new Nazis. I just think we have to have enough moral strength to say that the gesture of memory and freedom is ultimately stronger than the possibility of monsters gloating."

Shad Thames resident Mark Shepherd spoke of his personal experience of an IRA bomb in the City of London and the Soho nail bomb. He described the use of World Trade Center girders as "ghoulish".

"You do not have the right to impose this on me twice daily as I walk to work," he said.

Alex Clarke, chair of the September 11 United Kingdom Families Support Group, said that the steel girders had been offered to her group which had declined to accept them.

"Even in their new guise as an artwork we ... find them extremely ugly," she said.

"We don't like them. I'm sorry for you, Southwark, if you are going to have to put up with looking at them.

"I hope you don't attract the sort of peculiar people who get attracted to our very pretty memorial in Grosvenor Square.

"You can have the English Defence League come and shout every year if you'd like."

Professor Schama said that Mrs Clarke's contention that UK families of 9/11 victims were united in their opposition to the artwork was "simply not true".

"I have trouble with the monopoly of grief," he said. "I respect the feelings of the families; that's the meaning of the remarks I made.

"What you are taking away is the possibility of the citizens of London being able to reflect on the mortal danger posed by this atrocity. This is what you are withholding from them."

Nearly every speaker from the floor voiced their support for the project's education aims but said that they were not convinced by the need for a public artwork in this location.

"I have to say that I don't quite accept this view – in fact I do find it a little bit hypocritical – that's it's fine to have a programme in schools … but it's somehow not fine to have it as part of our urban fabric," said Professor Schama.

Riverside ward councillor Eliza Mann said: "We are not trying to diminish the of the memory of any of the people who died in the twin towers.

"What we are concerned about is that the vast majority of local residents don't want [the artwork] in Potters Fields Park.

"My question is: do you want to force it on them?"

She spoke about the community campaign that had secured the creation of Potters Fields Park so that local residents could have access to the river and to nearby green space.

"I'm sure you could find a better place for this art," she said, to applause and cheers from the audience.

Another speaker from the floor said that he lived in Grange Road and worked at More London. He said that he was "convinced that it should be in Potters Fields" and that passers-by should be confronted with the powerful image of the girders.

Local resident Sandra Melville contrasted the lack of consultation on the 9/11 artwork with the lengthy process that had preceded the redesign of Potters Fields Park itself: "I am having the feeling that something is being imposed ... and that's quite an uncomfortable feeling," she said.

The meeting then heard a powerful speech by Hannah Ali whose sister Sarah was on the 102nd floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001.

Ms Ali said she had never spoken in public before about the death of her sister.

"Yes, it's very important to you to have actual steel from that building," she said.

"But just spare a thought that bodies were strewn on them; literally exploded onto them; and you think that having a monument made out of these exact materials will be acceptable to me and to other family members."

She added: "How anyone could ever think of having artwork made out of that is beyond my understanding."

Ms Ali pointed out that the BBC contacts victims' families in advance when footage of the 9/11 attacks is to be shown on television in recognition of the power and trauma of these images. "They empathise with us," she said.

The meeting ended in disarray when requests from the floor for a vote to be taken were rejected by the chairman.

A member of the audience came to the lectern to ask for a show of hands. Professor Schama then covered the microphones to prevent the man from being heard.

No indication was given as to how the views expressed during the meeting might be taken into account.

The 9/11 London Project exhibited revised plans for the artwork on a display board at the meeting, although these were not referred to by any of the speakers.

A water feature that was included in the designs approved by the planning committee has been removed and the latest images show the steel columns rising directly from the grass outside City Hall.

The revised plans will be presented to the Potters Fields Park Management Trust in the coming weeks in the hope that they will prove acceptable. The project still hopes to have the artwork in place in time for the 10th anniversary commemorations in September this year.

The project's founder, Peter Rosengard, told the London SE1 website that public consultation had not been carried out before the planning application was made because the foundation's advisors had said that very few people lived close to the park.

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