£14.5m awarded to transform online exploration of UK’s culture and heritage collections through harnessing innovative AI
The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has awarded £14.5m to the research and development of emerging technologies, including machine learning and citizen-led archiving, in order to connect the UK’s cultural artefacts and historical archives in new and transformative ways.
The announcement today of the five major projects forming the largest investment of Towards a National Collection, a five-year research programme, reveals the first insights into how thousands of disparate collections could be explored by public audiences and academic researchers in the future.
The five ‘Discovery Projects’ will harness the potential of new technology to dissolve barriers between collections - opening up public access and facilitating research across a range of sources and stories held in different physical locations. One of the central aims is to empower and diversify audiences by involving them in the research and creating new ways for them to access and interact with collections. In addition to innovative online access, the projects will generate artist commissions, community fellowships, computer simulations, and travelling exhibitions.
The investigation is the largest of its kind to be undertaken to date, anywhere in the world. It extends across the UK, involving 15 universities and 63 heritage collections and institutions of different scales, with over 120 individual researchers and collaborators.
Together, the Discovery Projects represent a vital step in the UK’s ambition to maintain leadership in cross-disciplinary research, both between different humanities disciplines and between the humanities and other fields. Towards a National Collection will set a global standard for other countries building their own collections, enhancing collaboration between the UK’s renowned heritage and national collections worldwide.
The Congruence Engine: Digital Tools for New Collections-Based Industrial Histories
Principal Investigator: Dr Timothy Boon, Science Museum Group
Project partners: British Film Institute, National Museums Scotland, Historic Buildings & Monuments Commission for England (Historic England/English Heritage), National Museum Wales, National Museums Northern Ireland, The National Archives, National Trust, The V&A, universities of Leeds, London, and Liverpool, BBC History, Birmingham Museums Trust, BT Heritage & Archives, Grace's Guide to Industrial History, Isis Bibliography of the History of Science, Saltaire World Heritage Education Association, Society for the History of Technology, Whipple Museum of the History of Science (Tools of Knowledge Project), Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (Discovery Museum), Bradford Museums and Galleries, Wikimedia UK and Manchester Digital Laboratory (MadLab)
The Congruence Engine will create the prototype of a digital toolbox for everyone fascinated by our industrial past to connect an unprecedented range of items from the nation’s collection to tell the stories they want to tell. What was it like then? How does our past bear on our present and future? Until now, historians and curators have become acclimatised to a world where it has only been possible to work with a small selection of the sources – museum objects, archive documents, pictures, films, maps, publications etc – potentially relevant to the history they want to explore.
The Congruence Engine will use the latest digital techniques to connect collections held in different locations to overcome this major constraint on the histories that can be created and shared with the wider public in museums, publications and online. Digital researchers will work alongside professional and community historians and curators.
Through iterative exploration of the textiles, energy and communications sectors, the project will tune collections-linking software to make it responsive to user needs. It will use computational and AI techniques – including machine learning and natural language processing – to create and refine datasets, provide routes between records and digital objects such as scans and photographs, and create the tools by which participants will be able to enjoy and use the sources that are opened to them.
Our Heritage, Our Stories: Linking and searching community-generated digital content to develop the people's national collection
Principal Investigator: Professor Lorna Hughes, University of Glasgow
Project partners: The National Archives, Tate, British Museum, University of Manchester, Association for Learning 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
In the past two decades communities have gathered, recorded, and digitized their collections in a form of 'citizen history' that has created a truly democratic and vast reservoir of new knowledge about the past, known as community-generated digital content (CGDC). However, CGDC has proved extraordinarily resistant to traditional methods of linking and integration, for lack of infrastructure and the multilingual, multidialectal, and multicultural complexity of the content.
Our Heritage, Our Stories will dissolve existing barriers and develop scalable linking and discoverability for CGDC, through co-designing and building sophisticated automated AI-based tools to discover and assess CGDC 'in the wild', in order to link it and make it searchable. This new accessibility will be showcased through a major public-facing CGDC Observatory at The National Archives, where people can access, reuse, and remix these newly-integrated collections.
The project will make CGDC more discoverable and accessible whilst respecting and embracing its complexity and diversity. Through this, it will help tell the stories of communities through their rich collections of CGDC, which are at present hidden from wider view. By dissolving barriers between these and showcasing their content, the project will help centre diverse community-focused voices within our shared national collection.
Transforming Collections: Reimagining Art, Nation and Heritage
Principal Investigator: Professor susan pui san lok, University of the Arts London
Project partners: Tate, 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, National Museums Liverpool, Van Abbemuseum (NL), and Wellcome Collection
More than twenty years after Stuart Hall posed the question, ‘Whose heritage?’, Hall’s call for the critical transformation and reimagining of heritage and nation remains as urgent as ever. This project is driven by the provocation that a national collection cannot be imagined without addressing structural inequalities in the arts, engaging debates around contested heritage, and revealing contentious histories imbued in objects.
Transforming Collections aims to enable cross-search of collections, surface patterns of bias, uncover hidden connections, and open up new interpretative frames and ‘potential histories’ (Azoulay, 2019) of art, nation and heritage. It will combine critical art historical and museological research with participatory machine learning design, and embed creative activations of interactive machine learning in the form of artist commissions.
Among the aims of this project are to surface suppressed histories, amplify marginalized voices, and reevaluate artists and artworks ignored or sidelined by dominant narratives; and to begin to imagine a distributed yet connected evolving ‘national collection’ that builds on and enriches existing knowledge, with multiple and multivocal narratives.
The Sloane Lab: Looking back to build future shared collections
Principal Investigator: Professor Julianne Nyhan, University College London and TU Darmstadt
Project partners: British Museum, Natural History Museum, British Library, Historic Environment Scotland, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, National Museums of Scotland, Community Archives and Heritage Group, Down County Museum, National Galleries of Scotland, Oxford University Herbaria, Collecting the West project funded by the Australian Research Council & metaphacts
Focusing on the vast collections of Sir Hans Sloane in public institutions, this project will work with expert and interested communities including museum audiences to link the present with the past to allow the links between Sloane's collections and catalogues to be re-established across the Natural History Museum, the British Library, and the British Museum (plus others that have relevant material). The main outcome of the project will be a freely available, online digital lab - the Sloane lab - that will offer researchers, curators and the public new opportunities to search, explore, and engage critically with key questions about our digital cultural heritage.
The project’s central questions include: How can we make specialist users and members of the public more aware of the contested nature of museum collections? What is the role of digital tools in facilitating discussions on imperialism, colonialism, slavery, loss and destruction, that have shaped the national collection? And who gets to contribute to, and shape, research on how memory institutions can reach across their institutional boundaries, subject-specialties and even countries so as to better support their audiences, visitors and users?
Community Fellows will enhance the research, which will later form part of a traveling exhibition.
Unpath'd Waters: Marine and Maritime Collections in the UK
Principal Investigator: Mr Barney Sloane, Historic Buildings & Monuments Commission for England (Historic England/English Heritage)
Project partners: Historic Environment Scotland, MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology), National Maritime Museum, the Universities of Bangor, Bradford, Portsmouth, St Andrews, Southampton, Ulster, York, Glasgow School of Art, National Oceanography Centre, Mary Rose Trust, Maritime Archaeology Trust, Nautical Archaeology Society, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Wessex Archaeology, Welsh Government Historic Environment Service, Department for Communities Northern Ireland, Lloyd's Register Foundation, Manx National Heritage, Marine Management Organisation, & Protected Wreck Association
The UK's marine heritage is extraordinarily rich. Shipwrecks date from the Bronze Age to the World Wars, bearing testimony to Britain as an island nation, and a destination for trade and migration. Aircraft losses, inundated monuments, ports and seaside resorts all tell personal stories of struggles and successes. Before the Bronze Age, a great deal of what is now the North Sea floor was forest, hill and plains, peopled by prehistoric communities.
This heritage, covering 23,000 years, is represented by collections of charts, documents, images, film, oral histories, sonar surveys, seismic data, bathymetry, archaeological investigations, artefacts, objects and artworks. But they are often dispersed, unconnected and inaccessible. This matters because the story of our seas is of huge interest to the UK public, and because our exploitation of our seas for food, leisure, trade and energy is intensifying. If we are to reveal new stories and manage our past effectively and in sustainable ways, we need to join up these collections and unlock their potential.
UNPATH aims to reshape the future of UK marine heritage, making records accessible for the first time across all four UK nations and opening them to the world. It will devise new ways of searching across collections, visualising underwater landscapes, and identifying wrecks and artefacts from them. UNPATH will also deliver tools to protect our most significant heritage, while inviting the public to co-design ways of exploring the archives in order to uncover previously untold stories and new questions to guide future research.
Dr Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History for the Science Museum Group, is also a curator and historian of the public culture of science, who learned his curatorial trade with the (Wellcome) medical collections at the Science Museum. His published research (the books Films of Fact (2008) and Material Culture and Electronic Sound (co-edited, 2013) and 40+ papers) is mainly concerned with the representation of science, technology and medicine in documentaries and museums, and with technology and music. His exhibition and gallery work includes Health Matters (1994), Making the Modern World (2000) and Oramics to Electronica (2011). He is a former President of the British Society for the History of Science.
Professor Lorna M Hughes MAE is Professor of Digital Humanities and Dean for Europe at the University of Glasgow. Her research addresses the creation of digital cultural heritage, and the use and re-use of digital collections for research, teaching, and public engagement. She has a specific interest in the conceptualisation, development, implementation and categorisation of digital methods in the humanities. She has had leading roles on over twenty funded research projects, is Chair of the Europeana Research Advisory Board, and is Vice Chair and a member of the Governing Board of EuroScience.
Dr susan pui san lok is Professor of Contemporary Art and Director of the Decolonising Arts Institute at University of the Arts London. Before joining UAL, she was Associate Professor in Fine Art at Middlesex University, and Co-Investigator on the AHRC Black Artists and Modernism project (2015-18). Working across installation, moving image, sound, performance and text, recent exhibitions include seven x seven (Glasgow International Festival, 2021), A COVEN A GROVE A STAND (Firstsite, 2019) and Diaspora Pavilion (Venice Biennale, 2017). Publications range from artist books to edited volumes, book chapters, journal articles and visual/text essays, including The Place is Here (2019), Contesting British Chinese Culture (2018) and Shades of Black (2005).
Professor Julianne Nyhan FRHistS, is Professor of Digital Humanities at UCL and Professor of Humanities Data Science at TU Darmstadt. Her main research interests are in Digital Humanities, Oral History and Digital Cultural Heritage. She has published widely, for example (with Andrew Flinn), the open access Computation and the Humanities: towards an Oral History of Digital Humanities Springer 2016. Her recent collaborative projects include, among others, a Leverhulme-funded collaboration with the British Museum on the manuscript catalogues of Sir Hans Sloane and a Transatlantic Partnership for Social Sciences and Humanities 2016 Digging Into Data Challenge, Oceanic Exchanges.
Barney Sloane is currently National Specialist Services Director at Historic England. An archaeologist, he worked initially at the Museum of London before joining a University of Reading AHRC project on medieval burials, linking 70 collections into one database. He joined Historic England to manage terrestrial and marine research grants, and now manages a team of archaeologists, heritage scientists and buildings conservation experts, and is currently the lead for two major cross-sector initiatives of relevance to Towards a National Collection: the Future of Archaeological Archives Programme, and Heritage Information Access Simplified. He is also currently President of the European Archaeological Council.