Manchester Talking Statues

The Manchester Talking Statues are part of a project that comprises 35 public statues in London and Manchester. The project was launched on 12th August 2014 and was curated by Colette Hiller, artistic director of the public interventions company Sing London, in collaboration with the University of Leicester with funding from the NESTA Digital R&D Fund for the Arts.

The fundamental question upon which the whole project is based is: “If statues could talk, what stories would they tell?” The statues were selected in accordance to their connection to the city, in order to promote public art in Manchester, to generate a more conscious way of seeing in the viewer, to deepen the public’s knowledge about historical events and the connections between famous personalities and the city. The monologues the statues tell were written and performed by a group of well known writers and actors and engage the visitor both physically and emotionally by using a wide range of devices, such as change in rhythm and tenses, figures of speech and anecdotes, sensory details and sound effects.

The public can listen to the story by scanning a QR code with their smartphone, typing a link into the web browser or by tapping a near field communication (NFC) chip that can be found on the statue’s plaque. In this way, an audio file disguised as a phone call is downloaded onto the device, and, by accepting the call, people can listen to the 2-3 minutes monologue. After having heard the story, visitors can tap on the “Read more” button that appears on their smartphone’s screen, which redirects them to the Talking Statues website, where more details about the statue and about the writer or actor involved can be found.

The technology implemented is very easy to use and accessible to everyone, making the project suitable for a non-specialist audience, particularly local, due to the strong links between the statues, or the characters they represent, and the city in which they are located. In fact, the seven Manchester statues are all strongly connected to the city. Five of them represent famous characters, namely L.S. Lowry, Queen Victoria, John Barbirolli, Abraham Lincoln, and Alan Turing. The sixth is an Italian 19th century marble statue of a reading girl sited at the Manchester Central Library. The last statue to have found a voice is Stan the T-Rex displayed at the Manchester Museum. Part of the Talking Statues project involved co-creation with the public, who were asked for their contribution by taking part in a writing competition to give Stan a voice. This enabled them to actively participate in the project, creating a sense of shared ownership and identity between the community and the object.

The project’s aim is to generate more awareness of public art in Manchester and a more conscious way of seeing in the spectator, as well as to deepen the public’s knowledge about certain events and understand the connections between famous personalities and the city. The project involves the viewers’ active role in the construction of meanings and interpretations, and engage them both from the intellectual and physical points of view. By travelling from one part of the city to another to find the statues, people may discover hidden spots or engage with the place in a more profound way, making the city’s historical heritage part of their everyday lives.

The statues are used to convey a message and tell a story; overall, there’s little reference to the object’s own biography. The monologues contain references to the area of the city in which they are placed, thus suggesting new ways of engaging with the surrounding environment, bringing people to also interact physically with the statue.

The monologues aim to create a sense of empathy between the statue and the viewer. The statues tell their own stories from a personal and emotional point of view referring back to the part of history in which they played their role without giving too much detail or telling it from an objective and didactic perspective. The hints provided by the monologue raise questions in the viewer, who is likely to want to find out more about the person the statue represents, the circumstances that brought them close to Manchester or that brought the statue to be where it is and why it was chosen to be part of this project.

Giulia Grappoli