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Art Historians go Wild

Puffin bollards - three painted cast metal sculptures by artist David Kemp near the beach

Sam Shaw and Carla Benzan, lecturers in Art History, have been contributing to the buzz around the highly popular BBC/OU co-production Wild Isles.

Members of the Open Ecologies group (Carla is co-convenor), they consider the role that historic art can play in educating people about ecological breakdown. The group brings together researchers in the School of Arts and Humanities (A&H), the School of Social Sciences and Global Studies (SSGS), and the Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), with outputs including Sam and Carla’s Art and Climate Change project with Glasgow Museums.

Sam explains that “what it means to look at an animal is the kind of question, ultimately, that requires knowledge of several disciplines. It challenges art historians to brush up on their biology. It also points to the vital role that art and visual culture have played – and should still play – within the natural sciences”.

In The Conversation, Sam notes that “Wild Isles is part of a long and complex tradition of representing or framing wildlife that includes a wide variety of images and objects. As I watched […] I wondered what a comparable experience might have been, say, 200 years ago.” Sam’s online Wild Isles in Art exhibition for ArtUK showcases the drama and diversity of UK art collections, focusing on representations of species that feature in the BBC Wild Isles series, updated each week.  “When people couldn’t film birds, they drew or painted them, usually in such a way as to communicate complex information … there is much to be gained by comparing such images with their contemporary equivalents,” he says. Sam has been tweeting his exhibition updates with each new episode of the series gaining social media attention.

Carla’s blog article is hot off the presses, where she notes that she was “struck by the remarkable diversity of UK birdlife while watching Wild Isles” and while “Wild Isles does it especially well, the idea of representing the variety of birds that live in the UK is not new.”  Wildlife in “paintings span genre painting and natural history and are very well represented in UK museums”. She imagines that “if gallery-goers and birdwatchers were to swap roles for a time, and to share and discuss any of the artworks […] we might cultivate a richer connection to the diversity of birds living across the 'Wild Isles' of the United Kingdom, and the ways that humans relate to them”.

Wild Isles is broadcasting on BBC1 (except Wales) and is available on iPlayer. Visit our Broadcast & Partnerships site OU Connect to learn more about the programme and related Open University study.

Free Learning links

Wild Isles - About the programme via OU Connect

Wild Isles - About the programme via the BBC website

Research links:

Wild Isles - Article about the series from The Conversation website

Wild Isles in Arts - Online exhibition from Sam Shaw via the ART UK website

Our precious birds - Online exhibition from Carla Benzan via the ART UK website

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