Artificial intelligence supports culture and heritage exploration

Overhead View Of Busy Museum Interior With Visitors

AHRC awards £14.5 million to five projects which will transform online access to the UK’s culture and heritage collections by harnessing innovative technologies.

This will include machine learning and citizen-led archiving which will connect the UK’s cultural artefacts and historical archives in new ways.

These discovery projects will dissolve barriers between collections:

  • opening up public access
  • facilitating research across a range of sources and stories held in different physical locations.

Empowering diverse audiences

This is the largest investment of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) Towards a National Collection initiative, which is a major five-year investment in the UK’s world-renowned:

  • museums
  • archives
  • libraries
  • galleries.

One of the central aims is to empower and diversify audiences by involving them in research and creating new ways for them to access and interact with collections.

This announcement reveals the first insights into how thousands of disparate collections could be explored by public audiences and academic researchers in the future

World leading research

Towards a National Collection is the largest investment of its kind to be undertaken to date, anywhere in the world and extends across the UK, involving:

  • 15 universities
  • 63 heritage collections and institutions.

Together, the projects funded as part of this investment 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.

Ambitious phase

Professor Christopher Smith, AHRC Executive Chair said:

This moment marks the start of the most ambitious phase of research and development we have ever undertaken as a country in the space where culture and heritage meet AI technology.

Towards a National Collection is leading us to a long-term vision of a new national research infrastructure that will be of benefit to collections, researchers and audiences right across the UK.

Harnessing emerging technologies

Rebecca Bailey, Programme Director, Towards a National Collection, said:

Today, for the first time, we can reveal the direction of travel for one of the UK’s most collaborative research programmes.

By harnessing emerging technologies to the creative interdisciplinary talents of our research teams, eventually everyone will have the ability to access an outstanding trove of stories, imagery and research linking together the limitless ideas and avenues in our national collections.

From community archives to overlooked artists; from botanical specimens to the ship-wrecked Mary Rose.

Ambitious research initiatives

Dr Maria Balshaw CBE, Steering Committee member and Director, Tate, said:

Tate is delighted to be collaborating closely with University of the Arts London and partnering with the University of Glasgow on two of the Towards a National Collection Discovery projects.

These are substantial and ambitious long-term research initiatives that will enable Tate to interrogate artists, artworks and histories in our collection and generate new knowledge for and with the public.

Like all of the Towards a National Collection projects, we see this as a brilliant opportunity to work closely with our academic and sector partners in a programme that will have a huge and positive impact for audiences in the UK and internationally.

Strengthening international leadership

Dr Hartwig Fischer, Steering Committee member and Director, 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.

Towards a National Collection will strengthen Britain’s international leadership in this area.

Further information

The Towards a National Collection discovery projects are outlined below.

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

Principal Investigator: Dr Timothy Boon, Science Museum Group

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 potentially relevant to the history they want to explore. For example:

  • museum objects
  • archive documents
  • pictures
  • films
  • maps
  • publications.

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

In the past two decades communities have gathered, recorded, and digitised their collections in a form of ‘citizen history’ that has created a truly democratic and vast reservoir of new knowledge about the past. This is 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’. This is in order to link it and make it searchable.

Transforming collections: reimagining art, nation and heritage

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

More than 20 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
  • 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.

The Sloane lab: looking back to build future shared collections

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

Focusing on the vast collections of Sir Hans Sloane in public institutions, this project will work with expert and interested communities, including museum audiences. This is 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
  • the British Museum
  • others that have relevant material.

The main outcome of the project will be a freely available, online digital lab – the Sloane lab. It will offer researchers, curators and the public new opportunities to search, explore, and engage critically with key questions about our digital cultural heritage.

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)

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.

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
  • artworks.

But they are often dispersed, unconnected and inaccessible. 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
  • identifying wrecks and artefacts from them.

Top image: Credit: monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images

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