A New Digital Archive Will Preserve Stunning Murals and Street Art in the U.K.

Art U.K. is aiming to digitize and compile images of an ephemeral form of art

Battle of Cable Street
Battle of Cable Street (1976–1983) by Desmond Rochfort, Dave Binnington, Paul Butler and Ray Walker in St. George's Park in London Anthony McIntosh / Art U.K.

Despite its enduring resonance, street art isn’t always made to last. Now, a project from Art U.K. is aiming to create a record of an art form that is inherently impermanent. 

The organization is on a three-year mission to collect images of roughly 5,000 murals in the United Kingdom and make them available on its website. In addition to murals, the archive will also include three-dimensional reliefs, friezes and sculptures.

The project aims to draw attention to street art and its role in local communities. It will feature prominent names, such as the enigmatic British muralist Bansky, alongside lesser-known artists.

“The location of murals, the circumstances behind their creation and the materials used to create them can result in this type of artwork being ephemeral in nature,” says Katey Goodwin, deputy chief executive of Art U.K., in a statement. “Buildings and housing estates are demolished to make way for new developments, meaning that many murals have been lost.”

Saint Enoch and Child
Saint Enoch and Child (2018) by Smug in Glasgow Gordon Baird / Art U.K.

A few months ago, for instance, officials in Dover, England, moved to topple a three-story building featuring a Banksy mural, prompting criticism from art lovers who fought against the artwork’s destruction. Conversely, the act of preservation can sometimes alter a piece’s original meaning. Around the same time, officials in Venice, Italy, announced their plans to restore a fading Banksy mural, but critics argued that the piece’s gradual deterioration was part of the artist’s intent.

Creating an online archive may help solve this dilemma by preserving street art without physically interfering with it.

“We will record the murals as they look now to provide a record if they are removed, defaced or suffer environmental damage,” says Goodwin. “Art U.K. has in place a well-trained, dedicated network of volunteer researchers and photographers ready to take on a new challenge.”

Federation House Concrete Reliefs
Federation House Concrete Reliefs (circa 1965–1966) by Gilling Dod Architects and William Mitchell in Liverpool Martin Henderson / Art U.K.

In 2021, the organization took on a similar project, ultimately digitizing over 50,000 public sculptures.

Outside the walls of traditional art institutions, street art can serve as an important platform for highlighting marginalized voices and critical social issues. Some examples of works included in the project are Gyula Bajo’s Co-operative Wholesale Society Mural (1958), which depicts the cornerstones of a balanced economy, and Marina Capdevila’s Community Mural (2021), which portrays dementia patients at a local elderly care center.

“Museums and other cultural institutions have historically struggled with how to present and preserve street art, despite its widespread popularity on social media, growing commercial value and very often its politically relevant poignance,” writes Artnet’s Jo Lawson-Tancred.

Community Mural
Community Mural (2021) by Marina Capdevila in Essex Tracy Jenkins / Art U.K.

Two other nonprofits are partnering with Art U.K. for the project: CultureStreet, which will work with young people to create educational films, and VocalEyes, which will help create audio descriptions of the murals for visually impaired audiences.

In addition to the new archive, the organization will create mural walking trails and host educational workshops, community events, film screenings and school activities. Along the way, Art U.K. will also document its preservation process.

“We will write stories about the artworks, artists, artistic practice, and their locations, our digitization and learning methodologies, and the contribution of our volunteers,” says Goodwin in the statement.

She adds, “We are looking forward to starting the digitization process very soon and sharing the newly recorded artworks on the Art U.K. website.”

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