Art UK public sculpture digitisation programme

Art UK’s unprecedented photography and digitisation project has resulted in the UK’s collection of over 14,000 public sculptures and monuments being freely available to view and search online for the first time ever.

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This case study is part of a series from the LGA Culture Commission


Art UK has taken over 145,000 photographs of sculptural works across the UK, by renowned artists including Antony Gormley, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. This unique resource showcases the rich history of public sculpture in the UK and how public sculpture itself represents our history. The digitisation programme took five years to complete and is the result of the dedicated contribution of over 530 volunteers.

The challenge

Until Art UK started the digitisation programme, there had never been a comprehensive study of all public sculptures across the UK. Smaller, regional studies had been carried out in the past, with many completed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA) as part of their National Recording Project. Art UK partnered with the PMSA during the digitisation programme and used their records as the basis for research in several areas of the UK.

Setting the project remit was a challenge, so we elected to follow the same remit developed by the PMSA, which included recording landscape or urban features that are sculptural and/or commemorative, or both. The sculptures could be made anywhere in the world. The PMSA recorded sculptures produced from the Stuart period onwards (from c.1603), but also recorded some Medieval sculptures. Object types included architectural features, statues and figures (human, animal and abstract), reliefs, commemorative clock towers, fountains and road markers (if substantially commemorative or sculptural), and war monuments (if substantially commemorative or sculptural).

Researching, locating and photographing public sculpture could be a challenge. Even in cities and towns, public sculpture can be both hard to find, and difficult to travel to. There are few locations where sculpture is conveniently clustered together to make the capture of several artworks easier. Many times, our volunteers travelled to a location, only to find sculptures encased in scaffolding, surrounded by road works, or obscured by street furniture or parked vehicles.

We were impacted by COVID-19 restrictions, with volunteers unable to undertake much, if any, photography throughout 2020 and the first part of 2021. As restrictions eased, our volunteers were able to go out again. The lockdowns did, however, give our volunteers and staff the opportunity to take stock of the images and data that had been gathered to date.

A woman in jacket and trousers holds a camera. She is standing in a shopping centre, next to a large sculpture of life-size people.

The solution


The diverse range of public sculpture in our cities, towns, and villages, has been recorded entirely by our large body of volunteers. Throughout the project, Art UK recruited over 530 people, from all over the UK, to photograph, research and record our national sculptural heritage. Collectively they contributed 5,000 days of their time. Each volunteer attended a training session and was issued with a guidance handbook, which laid out the specifications for the volunteer roles as either researcher or photographer.

For each public sculpture, our volunteers carried out an exhaustive search, primarily online, to gather as much information as possible. This includes the location of the sculpture (full address, latitude, longitude and the grid reference), the sculptors, architects, designers, and foundries involved in creating the sculpture, and the names of who commissioned and funded the work. We record the execution and unveiling dates, the listing status and date, and descriptions and other information about the subject matter. We also record the gender of the subject for commemorative work.

We developed a set of technical specifications for the volunteer photographers, with guidance on equipment and how to take images of sculptures outside. The volunteer photographers were asked to take at least eight images of around each sculpture, as well as photographing signatures, inscriptions and plaques and taking detail shots. A ‘context shot’ was also taken of each sculpture to show it in its wider setting. The artwork data and images were quality checked, then transferred to Art UK’s database, before being published to the Art UK website. Our Copyright team undertook rights clearance with artists and their estates (as needed).

The impact

This five-year project to document sculpture in the UK’s outdoor spaces is a significant milestone for anyone who cares about public art or simply wants to find out more about that sculpture they walk past each day. The result of the digitisation programme is a free online resource on the Art UK website, which provides users with the opportunity to search and browse over 14,000 public sculptures located across the UK. Users can search by location, artist, sculpture type and execution date, and create their own curations and sculpture trails.

Having good quality records and images of the sculpture holdings in the public realm is helping with planning for future documentation projects, exhibitions, research, conservation and storage needs. Sadly, we did encounter vandalism, metal theft and deliberate damage to public sculptures during the project. In Glasgow, our volunteer photographer took multiple images of the Highland Light Infantry Memorial and shortly afterwards the monument was vandalised, with the face and leg of the statue of a soldier broken off. Our Volunteer returned to photograph the memorial in its damaged state. The monument was repaired by the council in the same year, so our volunteer again returned to photograph the restored memorial. These photographs form a unique set of images, demonstrating the importance of preservation by record.

Many volunteers benefitted from their involvement in the project by developing their research and photography skills, and being given the opportunity to get involved in events and publicity. Almost all of our volunteers comment on how much they have learnt about their local history and community, often for the first time really ‘seeing’ what is around them.

– A woman in black clothes stands on the left holding a camera to her eye. She is photographing a sculpture, which is on the right of the image.

How is the new approach being sustained?

Existing public sculpture records on Art UK are updated as new information comes to light, such as artist names, execution dates and artwork titles. New information comes to us from our volunteers, artists, members of the public and through Art UK’s initiative Art Detective.

We continue to add new public artworks to Art UK, as they are installed and unveiled across the country. We can mobilise our team of volunteers to record information and take multiple images of the new artworks during or soon after their unveiling, and they can be added to the Art UK website a short time after they have been recorded. If we have missed a public sculpture during the recording project, they too can be added to the database. We can, if required, add new images if a public sculpture is changed or moved.

We write articles about public sculpture for the Art UK website, which can highlight artworks in a particular location or focus on specific sculptors and their practice. These articles help to reveal the stories behind the UK’s public art and explore wider art historical themes.

Lessons learned

Research of the UK’s public sculptures has uncovered an imbalance in the representation of females and people of ethnically diverse backgrounds. Analysing these sculpture records tells us a great deal about our country’s history and who we choose to commemorate, highlighting how our public art should become more representative. We have learned that of the public sculptures which depict or commemorate named people across the UK, 77.5 per cent are dedicated to men, 17 per cent are dedicated to women and 5.5 per cent are dedicated to both men and women. Just under 2 per cent of these sculptures to named people across the UK depict or commemorate people of ethnically diverse backgrounds. The largest group of named people commemorated are royalty, with over 460 public sculptures (15.5 per cent of the total sculptures of named people). Queen Victoria is the monarch with most public monuments and sculptures dedicated to her, with over 175 statues, fountains, bandstands, clock towers and other artworks erected in her name. Other roles and professions which are depicted and commemorated in large numbers are military figures, politicians, religious figures, writers and poets. Each part of the UK reflects its own identity, industries and local heroes in the monuments it builds. Art UK’s ground-breaking public sculpture database can be used for research for years to come and will grow as new public sculptures are unveiled across the UK.

In terms of the processes and specifications for the digitisation programme and the development of the volunteer team, these worked extremely well and will form the template for delivering new, large-scale projects. This includes recruitment and management of volunteers and how to value and retain the volunteer team. Art UK’s next photography digitisation project, subject to funding, will be to record the nation’s outdoor murals. The charity is also planning how it will digitise the UK’s ceramics collection.


Katey Goodwin, Deputy Director, Art UK, email: [email protected]

Tracy Jenkins, Public Art Manager, Art UK, email: [email protected]

Further resources

We have published several articles on the Art UK website about this programme and about the UK’s public sculpture:

Landmark project puts all the nation's public sculptures online | Art UK

Gandhi, Pocahontas and The Bee Gees: who is depicted in the UK's public sculpture? | Art UK

Redressing the balance: public sculptures of women | Art UK

Expect the unexpected: sculptures in strange places | Art UK

Ten things Art UK has learnt about supporting volunteers | Art UK

Volunteers' Week: Dewi Owens | Art UK

The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square: cutting-edge sculpture in the heart of London | Art UK