AHRC unveils digital collections research plan - Museums Association

AHRC unveils digital collections research plan

Five projects form a key part of the Towards a National Collection programme
Collections Digital Funding
Glasgow Women's Library
Glasgow Women's Library © Marc Atkins (Art Fund 2018)

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has announced details of five projects that will explore the digital future of the UK’s cultural and heritage collections.

The projects, which have been awarded a total of £14.5m, are part of Towards a National Collection, a five-year research programme that is funded through an £18.9m investment by UK Research and Innovation’s Strategic Priorities Fund and delivered by the AHRC.

Towards a National Collection aims to support the creation of a unified virtual “national collection”, dissolving barriers between the different collections of the UK’s museums, archives, libraries and galleries.

The five Discovery Projects will explore how audiences can be empowered and diversified by involving them in the research and creating new ways for people to access and interact with collections. The projects will also generate artist commissions, community fellowships, computer simulations and travelling exhibitions.

Rebecca Bailey, the programme director at Towards a National Collection, said she is pleased with the range of organisations and individuals involved in the programme.

“We wanted to have a complementary set of research projects and were looking to avoid duplication and also to make sure they combined a wide selection of disciplines,” Bailey said. “We are really pleased to have all four nations represented in the partnerships.”


Bailey said that there are more than 120 individual researchers and collaborators involved, as well as 15 universities and 63 heritage collections and institutions.

Hartwig Fischer, Towards a National Collection Steering Committee member and the director of the British Museum, said: “This unprecedented investment of funding by the AHRC into these five projects will allow us to explore what the digital future for our organisations can and should be – a future where anyone can search across collections cared for in different parts of the UK, to pursue their passion for knowledge and understanding, discover their own pasts and answer their own questions.”

While each project will address specific physical, digital and organisational solutions needed to bring together disparate collections across the UK, the Discovery Projects will work in a complementary way to show how collections can be united across different types and locations. All projects will aim to create public tools and interfaces that can be trialled with diverse, large-scale audiences across the country.

The five Discovery Projects

The Congruence Engine: Digital Tools for New Collections-Based Industrial Histories
Principal investigator
Timothy Boon, Science Museum Group
Project partners
British Film Institute; National Museums of Scotland; Historic Buildings & Monuments Commission for England; National Museum Wales; The National Archives; National Trust; Victoria and Albert Museum; universities of London, Leeds and Liverpool; BBC History; Birmingham Museums Trust; BT Heritage & Archives; Grace's Guide to Industrial History; Isis Bibliography of the History of Science; National Museums NI; Saltaire World Heritage Education; Association Society for the History of Technology; Whipple Museum of the History of Science; Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (Discovery); Bradford Museums and Galleries; Wikimedia UK; MadLab

Our Heritage, Our Stories: Linking and searching community-generated digital content to develop the people's national collection
Principal investigator
Lorna Hughes, University of Glasgow
Project partners
The National Archives; Tate; British Museum; University of Manchester; Association for Learning and Technology; Digital Preservation Coalition; Software Sustainability Institute; Archives+; Dictionaries of the Scots Language; National Lottery Heritage Fund; National Library of Scotland; National Library of Wales; Public Record Office of Northern Ireland; Wikimedia UK
Transforming Collections: Reimagining Art, Nation and Heritage
Principal investigator
Susan Pui San Lok, University of the Arts London
Project partners
Tate; National Museums Liverpool; Arts Council Collection; Art Fund; Art UK; Birmingham Museums Trust; British Council Collection; Contemporary Art Society; Glasgow Museums; Iniva (Institute of International Visual Art); JISC Archives Hub; Manchester Art Gallery; Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art; Van Abbemuseum (NL); Wellcome Collection
The Sloane Lab: Looking back to build future shared collections
Principal investigator
Julianne Nyhan, University College London
Project partners
British Museum; Natural History Museum; British Library; Historic Environment Scotland; Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh; National Museums of Scotland; Archives and Records Association; Down County Museum; National Galleries of Scotland; Oxford University Herbaria; Collecting the West project funded by the Australian Research Council; Metaphacts
Unpath'd Waters: Marine and Maritime Collections in the UK
Principal investigator
Barney Sloane, Historic Buildings & Monuments Commission for England
Project partner
Historic Environment Scotland; Royal Museums Greenwich; universities of Ulster, York, Southampton, Bangor, Bradford, St Andrews, and Glasgow School of Art; National Oceanography Centre; Museum of London Archaeology; Welsh Government Historic Environment Service; Department for Communities Northern Ireland; Lloyd's Register Foundation; Protected Wreck Association; Manx National Heritage; Marine Management Organisation; Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales; Mary Rose Trust; Maritime Archaeology Trust; Nautical Archaeology Society; Wessex Archaeology

Comments (2)

  1. Haydon Luke says:

    Clearly this initiative is most welcome but what worries me is that it appears to be dominated by the ‘big players’ most of whom are already in the loop with respect to major funding initiatives. What about the many, many smaller museums, galleries, heritage centres and local history groups in all parts of the 4 nations of the UK? They struggle financially (especially as a consequence of Covid) but hold much archive material which is largely ‘off the radar’ so far as the major archives are concerned. This is material of the people, held locally and valued for both those reasons. It is also material at risk and currently being maintained, against the odds, by a legion of volunteers in desperate need of support.
    It is a great pity that this ambitious project seems to have no room to investigate ways that such small local collections can be helped to become secure, digitised and thus become part of the wider national picture.

  2. Mike Howe says:

    What concerns me is the lack of funding for the basic underlyinging digitization. It is great developing tools to unify the diverse collections, but with so many important potential resources languishing undigitized in storage, are we sure we have our priorities in the right order?

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