Five projects join the Towards a National Collection community

Terracotta portrait bust of Sir Hans Sloane by Michael Rysbrack

Towards a National Collection awards £14.5 million and welcomes five new teams to help deliver our mission to dissolve the barriers between heritage collections.

Establishing the programme

Credit: Blanket factory, Oxfordshire et al.

Facing the cream of the UK humanities and heritage research community in large meeting rooms in London and Edinburgh in February 2020, little did I know how important this community of experts would become. That is, in sustaining me, my team and our programme through 18 months of a global pandemic.

I took up the role of Programme Director for the Strategic Priorities Fund Towards a National Collection (TaNC). My mission is to enable research and development that would digitally connect the UK’s outstanding heritage collections, opening them up to new research and new audiences.

Eight foundation projects, led by independent research organisations in partnership with universities, got underway immediately to investigate the standards, methodologies and tools that would underpin our mission. Three COVID-19 projects followed, examining the impact of lockdown on how people engaged with online collections.

But the purpose of those large meetings was to consult the academic and heritage community on their priorities for the biggest grants we had planned: £14.5 million for five substantial discovery projects.

The TaNC community

The journey of how we got from that early, real-life consultation, to the awards we are announcing this week, is one filled with:

  • collaboration
  • communication
  • community.

They are all reliant on the enthusiasm, interest and expertise of those who joined the TaNC family along the way.

We launched the social media campaign Collections United with a collective statement, signed by 17 UK-wide collection sector organisations, who pledged to:

Work together as never before to celebrate the connections between us, to bring our treasures together in fresh and surprising ways, and to shine a spotlight on some of the little-known wonders of our shared national collection.

Almost 600 people attended ten discovery project events, and I subsequently had 57 (virtual) meetings with applicant teams, supporting them to build new partnerships and develop the best possible proposals. We even used virtual ‘speed dating’ to facilitate new relationships between disciplines and organisations.

46 academic, cultural heritage, commercial and community organisations are part of our foundation and COVID-19 projects, while an impressive 210 organisations from across the UK home nations were involved in the discovery project outline bids.

A series of webinars, attracting more than 700 people, has seen the presentation and lively discussion of developing research, while our international strand has welcomed speakers from:

  • Japan
  • New Zealand
  • USA
  • Italy
  • Germany.

They have generously shared their experiences, both positive and negative, of providing access to nationally aggregated collections.

Access the recordings on YouTube.

Discovery project awards

This week we are announcing £14.5 million funding for five discovery projects. In addition to developing cutting-edge artificial intelligence solutions to the cross-searching of collections, and undertaking thematic studies, a central aim of all of the projects is to 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
  • travelling exhibitions.

Read more information about the discovery projects on Towards a National Collection.

The congruence engine: digital tools for new collections-based industrial histories

Principal Investigator: Dr Timothy Boon, Science Museum Group

Foster stereo printing press model, 1885-88

Credit: National Museums Scotland

Led by the Science Museum Group, this project will involve over 20 partners, ranging from:

  • the British Film Institute
  • Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums.

They will work together to create the prototype of a digital toolbox allowing 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. Through iterative exploration of the textile, energy and communication sectors, the project will fine-tune collections-linking software to make it responsive to user needs.

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

Led by the University of Glasgow and the National Archives, this project brings together over 14 partners from:

Credit: Gwen Riley Jones, The University of Manchester

  • Tate
  • the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

It will seek to dissolve existing barriers and develop scalable linking and discoverability for ‘citizen history’, also known as community-generated digital content (CGDC). This innovative approach will build automated tools to discover and assess CGDC ‘in the wild’ in a major new online observatory at the National Archives.

Unpath’d waters: marine and maritime collections in the UK

Principal Investigator: Mr Barney Sloane, Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England (Historic England, English Heritage)

Credit: Kevin Camidge and Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Maritime Archaeology Society, for Historic England

The UK’s marine heritage will be connected in Unpath’d Waters. Led by Historic England, 22 partners from all four UK home nations will provide collections covering 23,000 years of history.

These collections chart shipwrecks dating from the Bronze Age to the World Wars, bearing testimony to Britain as:

  • an island nation
  • a destination for trade and conquest
  • the centre of a global empire.

The project will:

  • devise new ways of searching across collections
  • create simulations to visualise wrecks and landscapes
  • deliver new ways of identifying wrecks and the artefacts and objects from them.

It will create tools to protect our most significant heritage, and will invite the public to co-design new ways of interacting with collections and get involved in the creation of new stories.

Transforming collections: reimagining art, nation and heritage

Principal Investigator: Professor Susan Pui San Lok, University of the Arts London

Iniva_Rivington Place Photograph

Credit: Carlos Jimenez

This project, led by the University of Arts London and Tate, is driven by the rationale that a national collection cannot be imagined without addressing:

  • structural inequalities in the arts
  • debates around contested heritage
  • contentious histories imbued in objects.

15 project partners, from National Museums Liverpool to Glasgow Museums, will enable cross-search of collections, surface patterns of bias, uncover hidden connections and unearth suppressed:

  • histories
  • voices
  • artists
  • artworks.

The Sloane lab: looking back to build future shared collections

Principal Investigator: Professor Julianne Nyhan, University College London and TU Darmstadt

The vast collections of Sir Hans Sloane are in:

  • the British Museum
  • the Natural History Museum
  • the British Library.

They will be reconnected as a case study to engage critically with key questions around digital cultural heritage. 11 project partners, from the Community Archives and Heritage Group to the National Galleries of Scotland will investigate the role of digital tools in facilitating discussion that have shaped the national collection, such as:

  • imperialism
  • colonialism
  • slavery
  • loss
  • destruction.

The project will also examine who gets to contribute to, and shape, research on how memory institutions can reach across boundaries to better support their audiences.

Collectively, the discovery projects extend across the UK, involving 15 universities and 63 heritage collections and institutions of different scales, with over 120 individual researchers and collaborators. Looking forward, they will make a major contribution to the future ambition of building and sustaining a digital national collections research infrastructure.

And finally…

I have not been able to meet any of the TaNC community in person since February last year. However, the power of video-conferencing means we have peered into each other’s kitchens and spare rooms, enjoyed interruptions by children and animals, and kept up to date with the weather around the UK. But most importantly, we have responded to the challenges of the pandemic by being ever more determined in our collective approach in opening UK collections to the world.

Top image: Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

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