16 March 2018

The Lost Words: disappearing language

Just a 20-minute walk from our Clerkenwell offices, near Coram's Fields, is the Foundling Museum.

The museum tells the story of the Foundling Hospital, which was established in the 18th century and ranks as the UK's first children's charity and its first public art gallery. This year, the museum is hosting a compelling new exhibition, The Lost Words, that explores how the language we use every day reflects the way our lives are changing, and warns us what could be slipping away.

The Lost Words project is a collaboration between author Robert Macfarlane and artist and author Jackie Morris. It takes as its starting point the idea that nature is becoming ever more remote from young people: in a 2008 survey only a third of primary age children could identify a magpie. As part of that process, simple terms for the birds, animals and plants we share our lives with - how we name them, and the words we use to talk about them - are being lost.

The exhibition is structured around a series of subjects, each captured in a paired poem and picture. Every subject is a common nature word that is beginning to disappear through lack of use: acorn, bramble, conker or newt. The works celebrates the tiny beautiful details of the natural world, and the plants and animals are as finely drawn in Robert Macfarlane's evocative acrostic poems as in Jackie Morris's golden, glowing artwork. Glimpses of the "flick-flight, light-flight" of the wren, the "supple slider...shape-shifter" otter or the "evening angler, weather-teller" kingfisher are captured in poems the author calls 'spells' to summon a living world for readers to explore.

The connection between the Foundling Hospital and the arts goes back to the charity's foundation by Thomas Coram in 1739, when he drew on the star power of his friends, artist William Hogarth and musician George Frideric Handel to bolster the public profile, and the coffers, of his work to care for vulnerable children in London. Handel, Hogarth and their contemporaries gave generously of their work and their time to support the cause.

By giving a platform to The Lost Words, the Foundling Museum celebrates again the transformative power the arts can have on children's lives, and over the weeks, the exhibition and the book it accompanies, have struck a chord. In Stirling, a bus driver has raised £25,000 so she can give a copy of The Lost Words book to every school in Scotland, and teachers around the country are using it to inspire children in the classroom.

The joyful response to the work illustrates that as modern living inevitably takes children (and adults) further from nature and closer to their screens, given the opportunity we love to be enticed back. Many of us live the kinds of urban lives that make the likelihood of spotting an otter or kingfisher slim, but the immediate pleasure of sharing a time check on a dandelion clock, learning to toot a sharp blast on a blade of grass trumpet or prising open a perfect, gleaming conker are more achievable. These are the experiences that repeat through generations and form a thread through our parents', our own and our children's lives.

The Lost Words runs until 6 May 2018 at London's Foundling Museum.

Image credit: Jackie Morris, Kingfisher, 2017 © Jackie Morris