Image: Edinburgh Botanic Gardens

#CollectionsUnited campaign aims to connect digital collections

Jonathan Knott, 06.05.2020
Social media initiative encourages museum professionals and the public to create conversations about online collections
A new social media campaign is being launched on 12 May to bring together the UK’s digital collections in innovative and creative ways.
 
#CollectionsUnited aims to generate conversations about online collections and how they relate to each other.  

It forms part of the £19m Arts and Humanities Research Project Towards a National Collection, which aims to address a lack of coordination between different digital collections and catalogues. It also falls under the umbrella of Boundless Creativity, a new programme from the AHRC launched today in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Rebecca Bailey, director of Towards a National Collection, said the project aims to “highlight the riches of the collections that are held right across the UK by national institutions, regional, local, volunteer-led, right across the spectrum of cultural heritage”.  
The campaign is asking people to “bring together two or more objects from different collections that allow a story to be told and give us an insight into how collections can talk to each other across the UK”. 

To illustrate the project’s aims, Bailey gave the example of a current research project that is exploring the visual imagery of botanical objects. This might involve exploring the connections that can be made between the collections of a botanic gardens and a design company.  

“We’re opening it up to see how people think about collections and how collections can relate to each other,” said Bailey. The campaign will last for at least three months. It will be started off by curators, researchers and students who will create cross-collection content to inspire the public to get involved. This will include staff from the AHRC’s Independent Research Organisations such as the British Museum, British Library, and the national museums of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  

Museums Association director Sharon Heal said: "The current crisis has forced us all to look at what our digital offer is at a time when our physical buildings are closed. The idea behind #collectionsunited is to offer a chance for museums across the UK to showcase their amazing objects and artefacts and for the public to actively interact with them to make unexpected connections. 

"There is a real sense of museums coming together in this crisis and wanting to connect with communities to create rich cultural engagement. The pandemic is putting pressure on us all but it will also reshape how we interact with the public and make us rethink how we work together - and that can only be a good thing."

Research grants

As part of Towards a National Collection, AHRC will be awarding up to £15m to research projects that help develop a more unified national collection.

AHRC will make grants to up to five interdisciplinary collaborations between higher education organisations and other research institutions. The maximum award is £3m, provided over a period of up to three years.

The project aims to address a lack of co-ordination between different digital collections and catalogues, which AHRC says is “a major barrier to research and public access”.

It is intended to take the first steps towards creating a virtual national collection that would “realise the full, combined potential of the collections not only for research but for the heritage economy and the wider social good”.

AHRC says the project will open up radical new avenues of research, increase visitor numbers, and provide a significant boost to virtual access.

The grants will support collaborations between UK higher education institutions and AHRC’s Independent Research Organisations, which include a number of national museums. Further collaboration with local, regional or national organisations, third sector bodies and other stakeholders is “strongly encouraged”.

Earlier this year, the project made grants to eight small-scale collaborations for exploratory research on challenges to opening up and searching across collections.

The overall funding for the project is £18.9m, provided by UK Research and Innovation through its Strategic Priorities Fund.

Bailey, previously head of exhibitions and outreach at Historic Environment Scotland, was announced as the director of Towards a National Collection in February.

She described the project as a “significant and timely new programme, which has clear potential to dissolve barriers between collections, opening them up to new cross-disciplinary lines of research, and extending public access”.

She said the funding would be used “to build a strong collaborative research community, bringing together practitioners from across the cultural heritage sector, with academics at the forefront of digital humanities.”

The project is overseen by a steering committee that includes a number of museum professionals such as directors, collections experts and digital specialists.

The deadline for outline proposals for the grants is 17 November. AHRC will hold four webinars in May and June for applicants to find out more and discuss initial ideas.

Update
07.05.2020

Edited to clarify the launch date of #collectionsunited

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