More than 500 museums launch art project to confront mass biodiversity loss across UK

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More than 500 museums from across the UK have joined together to launch an artist-led campaign highlighting the dramatic loss of biodiversity in the UK. The project, titled “The Wild Escape”, is one of the largest museum projects ever funded by Arts Council England and leading British artists including Mark Wallinger, Yinka Shonibare, Es Devlin and FKA Twigs have created original works to support it.

“The Wild Escape” aims to inspire UK primary school age children to create artworks of their own, inspired by animals, insects and plants that they encounter in UK museums. “It will create a new relationship between museums and the natural world aiming to shape the lives of the children who participate,” a press statement says.

The project is led by the UK charity Art Fund, who have worked in partnership with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the National Trust and English Heritage.

The children’s artwork animals will be “brought to life in a newly imagined epic-scale artwork”, created by the immersive games studio PRELOADED, to be launched on Earth Day (22 April 2023). It is hoped that museums, galleries and historic houses across the country will simultaneously host events relating to the UK’s biodiversity loss.

“‘The Wild Escape’ is a first,” says the Art Fund’s director Jenny Waldman. “We want to show how museums, by working together can bring a fresh angle to learning, especially to welcome children’s creative responses to our great collections.” “The Wild Escape” project was inspired by BBC One’s forthcoming Wild Isles series, presented by the broadcaster and biologist David Attenborough, and is in partnership with BBC Bitesize, the free study resource for children.

For her contribution to the project, the Cheltenham-born artist and musician Tahliah Debrett Barnett, better known as FKA Twigs, created a self portrait inspired by The Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez (1599–1660) from London’s National Gallery, as well as the painting Two-fold Screen by the Japanese artist Shibata Zeshin (1807-91) from the Khalili Collections, the art collection compiled by the British-Iranian collector Nasser D. Khalili.

Wallinger has created the work Fled is that Music, inspired by Ode to a Nightingale (1819) by the Romantic English poet John Keats, while Devlin has made an etching of the Phoenix fly, an endangered insect that has recently been spotted in London. Devlin was inspired by engravings of great belly’d gnats found the first edition of Micrographia (1665), a book by the British scientist Robert Hooke.

Es Devlin’s Phoenix picture-winged fly (2023) © Es Devlin

Speaking at the launch of “The Wild Escape”, Devlin said: “We are losing species. We are losing the habitat in which the species can live. It’s an emergency.” Wallinger added: “Young people are our hope. They’re our best and only hope. So it is absolutely crucial to instil and encourage this message of fragility and the sorry state we have reached.”

“The Wild Escape” project follows the Natural History Museum’s publication of its Biodiversity Trends Explorer report in 2021, which revealed the UK has almost lost 47% of its wildlife and plant species since the 1970s as a result of human and land development. The Natural History Museum is one of the partners on The Wild Escape.

The report finds a quarter of mammals in England and almost a fifth of UK plants are threatened with extinction. A third of British pollinator species have declined.

According to a separate report by the Environment Agency, published in July 2022, England is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world.

Rosalind Mist, the director of education and youth engagement at WWF, said: “The UK is in the bottom 10% of countries globally when it comes to protecting biodiversity, and WWF’s recent Living Planet Report found that population sizes of global wildlife have plummeted by 69% on average since 1970.”

• Read Art Fund director Jenny Waldman’s comment piece here

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