COVID-19 Urgency Projects

TaNC Urgency Project

Our three COVID-19 digital research projects were selected as part of our ‘Urgency Call’ to provide a critical and time-sensitive evaluation of the digital practice undertaken by museums during the COVID-19 pandemic and provide scalable lessons to inform future museum practice as well as the overall TaNC programme.  

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, digital access was left as the only option for heritage organisations to engage with their audiences and presented many challenges to the sector. This has opened a vital research agenda on how the public are interacting with collections and what lessons can be learnt for future digital provision.

These TaNC Urgency projects will help provide much-needed guidance on how cultural institutions can engage with virtual users as well as being better prepared for digital access in general. Building on data collected during the first lockdown, the projects will analyse the effectiveness and reach of digital collections and advise on solutions to the digital divide between large and small collection institutions.

Professor Gobinda Chowdhury of the University of Strathclyde in conjunction with the University of Edinburgh will be working with National Museums Scotland, National Galleries of Scotland to analyse the digital pathways of visitors to their websites during the lockdowns. The aim is to establish what attracts visitors, which pathways lead to engagement (Google Arts and Culture, Art UK etc), and how different stages of the pandemic affected interaction.

Online collections are now a major route through which users can experience artworks and cultural artefacts from galleries, libraries, archives and museums. While many large institutions have the resources and skills to make their collections accessible online, Professor Julian Richards and Dr Darren Reed from the University of York (working with the Collections Trust, Culture24, The Audience Agency, Museum of London Archaeology and others) will support a cohort of smaller museums to navigate the digital challenge. Following the FAIR data principles (data should be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable) the project will identify best practices and tools for those with lesser budgets and lower levels of digital literacy. Professor Richards said: ‘Small heritage institutions face major challenges in creating reusable and sustainable digital resources. We want to use our experience in digital curation to help them maximise the value of their investments in digital resources.’

Kevin Gosling, head of the Collections Trust said: ‘In lockdown, digital engagement is the only way UK museums can connect with their audiences. As some museums prepare to re-open, others have written off the entire year, and physical visitor numbers are unlikely to rebuild soon. Collections Trust found that during lockdown, staff and volunteers in over a third of museums could not access their collections data themselves, never mind share it. Our collaboration with the University of York aims to investigate how this situation can be mitigated and to provide direct support to help small collections build their digital capacity.’

Finally, Dr Leonardo Impett from Durham University and Professor Joasia Krysa from Liverpool John Moores University will look at public interaction with the 2020-21 virtual Liverpool Biennial and how that differs to previous, physical events. The project will ask questions around who views an online collection (local, regional or national) and what happens when you introduce machine curation to the exhibition process.

Edward Harcourt, Director of Research, Strategy and Innovation at AHRC notes that, ‘We have funded these projects to identify the role of digital collections in addressing the impact of the pandemic on the collections sector as a whole. The projects will increase understanding of the full extent of public interaction with online collections and identify digital patterns and practices in order to shape a coherent and comprehensive response that secures the well-being of our heritage sector as the pandemic recedes.’

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