The Holocaust and slavery – both need a fitting memorial

The proposed UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens, London. Photograph: Hayes Davidson
The proposed UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens, London. Photograph: Hayes Davidson

In 2005, a proposal was put forward to build something lacking in this country – a national memorial to the victims of slavery that would also honour their contribution to the prosperity of Britain. The organisers of the project, named Memorial 2007 after the bicentenary of abolition of the British slave trade, felt it would be good to place it near the Houses of Parliament, the location where the laws were passed that both enabled the trade and eventually ended it.

They proposed to place it in Victoria Tower Gardens, a quiet green space just upriver from the Palace of Westminster that contains the Buxton memorial fountain, a Victorian Gothic structure named after the abolitionist MP, Thomas Fowell Buxton. The Royal Parks, the body that manages Victoria Tower Gardens, along with some of the best-known green spaces in London, politely rejected the proposal. The gardens, it said, were “an important community green space”, and it did not feel that they could “accommodate a further memorial at this location”.

The Royal Parks did however offer Memorial 2007 a site in Hyde Park, where it is still hoped to build the project, which features a statue of six figures, representing different parts of the slave story, surrounded by a garden signifying the continents of Africa, America and Europe. It is, however, hindered by a lack of funds for its £4m cost. Although Boris Johnson proclaimed his support when mayor of London, no public money has gone towards it.

The same Victoria Tower Gardens is now in the news, due to a public inquiry that opened last week into the National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre that is proposed there. It is opposed by the City of Westminster, the local planning authority, which, like the Royal Parks, feels that this is the wrong site for a project much bigger than the slavery memorial. It argues that the combination of memorial and a learning centre – which is in effect a small museum – with the security and management issues that they entail, will destroy the character of the gardens.

The government, which has backed the project ever since David Cameron announced in January 2016 that he would commit £50m of public money to it, still wants it built. The purpose of the inquiry is to recommend whether, in planning terms, it should be permitted.

Remembrance of the Holocaust is a cause with which every decent person should wholeheartedly agree. But, from the moment of Cameron’s announcement, the proposal has been accompanied by a tendency not to think deeply about the implications of this decision – about what it means to build such a memorial in this country and at this time – as if the nobility of the cause made such thought unnecessary. Cameron, for example, said that the memorial would be “a permanent statement of our values as a nation”, as if British treatment of refugees from the Nazis – which was at times heartless, while at others heroic – were a matter for unqualified self-congratulation.

Such inattention has also led to the comparison – maybe not deliberate, but profoundly unfortunate – with the remembrance of enslaved Africans. While there was deemed to be no room in the gardens for Memorial 2007, space is made for the National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre. While the government can find £50m to remember the Holocaust, it can find nothing to support the Memorial 2007 project.

It’s hard not to agree with Oku Ekpenyon, the founder of Memorial 2007, when she says that “they would rather acknowledge another’s atrocity than one’s own atrocities”. We have been lectured, in this year of falling statues, by authorities from the prime minister down, about the importance of not forgetting or erasing history. Yet the remembrance of slavery in this country is misleadingly skewed towards honouring British abolitionists, such as Buxton, rather than on the sufferings and contributions of those enslaved by other Britons.

It would be thoroughly invidious to set up a rivalry between the Holocaust and slavery, a competition to decide which was the greater and more significant horror. Both must be remembered. But, in their carelessness, Cameron and his successors have made such a rivalry more likely. The least they can do is to support a project like Memorial 2007. They might also ask if the Holocaust might be better remembered by something more sensitive than the current proposals.

Rowan Moore is architecture critic of the Observer and was named Critic of the Year at the UK press awards 2014. He is the author of Slow Burn City and Why We Build.

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