Launch of Towards a National Collection discovery projects

£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.

Image by Colin McDowall, courtesy of Towards a National Collection. (Young woman winding bobbins on wheel in the loom shop, 1898 Blanket factory, Witney, Oxfordshire © Historic England Archive CC73_00946 | Indian laundry couple with the man ironing clothes. Attributed to a painter from Tanjore (Thanjavur), ca. 1840. Gouache drawing. 32247i © Wellcome Collection | Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) Stephen Slaughter (1697–1765) (attributed to) © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London | A starboard bow view of the three-masted barque Glenbervie (1866) with crowds of people, on the rocks at Lowland Point. G14146. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Gibson’s of Scilly Shipwreck Collection | Artwork by Peter Morphew illustrating the repositories of the University of Glasgow Archives and Special Collections.)

The Archives Hub is pleased to announce that we will be a project partner in one of five major projects being launched today. The projects form the largest investment of Towards a National Collection, a five-year research programme. Today’s launch 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 projects are:

● The Congruence Engine: Digital Tools for New Collections-Based Industrial Histories

● Our Heritage, Our Stories: Linking and searching community-generated digital content to develop the people’s national collection

● Transforming Collections: Reimagining Art, Nation and Heritage

● The Sloane Lab: Looking back to build future shared collections

● Unpath’d Waters: Marine and Maritime Collections in the UK

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.

Archives Hub and the Transforming Collections: Reimagining Art, Nation and Heritage project

Donald Locke 1972-4, Trophies of Empire © Estate of Donald Locke Courtesy of Tate | Claudette Johnson, Figure in Blue, 2018. © Claudette Johnson. Image Credit: Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre | Iniva_Rivington Place: Photograph by Carlos Jimenez, 2018 | Rachel Jones, lick your teeth, they so clutch, 2021. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © the artist.
Donald Locke 1972-4, Trophies of Empire © Estate of Donald Locke Courtesy of Tate | Claudette Johnson, Figure in Blue, 2018. © Claudette Johnson. Image Credit: Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre | Iniva_Rivington Place: Photograph by Carlos Jimenez, 2018 | Rachel Jones, lick your teeth, they so clutch, 2021. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © the artist. Image courtesy of the artist and Thaddaeus Ropac, London.

The Archives Hub at Jisc will be working with fellow project partners:

susan pui san lok, 2021
susan pui san lok, 2021: Courtesy the artist
  • 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)
  • Manchester Art Gallery
  • Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art
  • National Museums Liverpool
  • Van Abbemuseum (NL)
  • Wellcome Collection

The Principal investigator for Transforming Collections: Reimagining Art, Nation and Heritage project is Professor susan pui san lok, University of the Arts London.

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.

An arrangement of different castes including snake charmer, brick-layer, basket-maker, potter and wives. Gouache drawing. 28438i © Wellcome Collection.

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.

Untitled 1986 1987.21, Manchester Art Gallery © Keith Piper.

Among the aims of this project are to surface suppressed histories, amplify marginalized voices, and re-evaluate artists and artworks ignored or side-lined 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 role of the Archives Hub will centre around:

  • Disseminating project aims, developments and outcomes to our contributors, through our communication channels and our cataloguing workshops, to encourage a wide range of archives to engage with these issues.
Glasgow Women’s Library, Museum of the Year finalist, 2018. Art Map 2019. © Marc Atkins / Art Fund 2018
  • Working with the Creative Computing Institute, at the University of the Arts London, to integrate the Machine Learning (ML) processing into the Archives Hub data processing workflows, so that it can benefit for over 350 institutions, including public art institutions.
Mick Grierson, Exploring the Daphne Oram Collection using 3D visualisation and machine learning (screenshot). 2012. Mick Grierson, Parag MitalLondon © the artist.
  • Providing expertise from over 20 years of running an archival aggregator and working with a whole range of UK archive repositories, particularly around sustainability and the challenges of working with archival metadata.

It’s all about YOU: Manchester as an Open Data city

There are plans afoot to declare Manchester as an Open Data city. At the Manchester Social Media Cafe last week I attended a presentation by Julian Tait, a founder of the Social Media Cafe, who talked to us about why this would be a good thing.

The Open Data initiative emerged as a result of Future Everything 2009, a celebration of the digital future in art, music and ideas. But what is an Open Data city? It is based upon the principle that data is the life blood of a city; it allows cities to operate, function, develop and respond, to be dymanic and to evolve. Huge datasets are generally held in places that are inaccessible to many of the populace; they are largely hidden. If data is opened up then applications of the data can be hugely expanded and the possibilities would be limitless.
There are currently moves by central government to open up datasets, to enable us to develop a greater awareness and understanding of society and of our environment. We now have and we can go there and download data (currently around 2000 datasets) and use the data as we want to. But for data to have meaning to people within a city there has to be something at a city level; at a scale that feels more relevant to people in an everyday context.
Open data may be (should be?) seen as a part of the democratic process. It brings transparency, and helps to hold government to account. There are examples of the move towards transparency – sites such as They Work For You , which allows us all to keep tabs on our MP, and MySociety. In the US, Columbia has an initiative known as Apps for Democracy, providing prizes for innovative apps as a way to engage the community in ‘digital democracy’.
They key here is that if data is thrown open it may be used for very surprising, unpredictable and valuable things: “The first edition of Apps for Democracy yielded 47 web, iPhone and Facebook apps in 30 days – a $2,300,000 value to the city at a cost of $50,000”.
Mapumental is a very new initiative where you can investigate areas of the UK, looking at house price indexes, public transport data, etc. If we have truly open data, we could really build on this idea. We might be able to work out the best places to live if we want a quiet area with certain local amenities, and need to be at work for a certain time but have certain restrains on travel. Defra has a noise map of England, but it is not open information – we can’t combine it with other information.
Julian felt that Open Data will only work if it benefits people in their everyday existence. This may be true on a city scale. On a national scale I think that people have to be more visionary. It may or may not have a discernable impact on everyday living, but it is very likely to facilitate research that will surely benefit us in the long term, be it medically, environmentally or economically.
The Open Data initiative is being sold on the idea of people becoming engaged, empowered and informed. But there are those that have their reservations. What will happen if we open up everything? Will complex issues be simplified? Is there a danger that transparent information will encourage people to draw simplistic inferences? come to the ‘wrong’ conclusions? Maybe we will lose the subtleties that can be found within datasets, maybe we will encourage mis-information? Maybe we will condemn areas of our cities to be ghettos? With so much information at our fingertips about where we should live, the ‘better areas’ might continue to benefit at the expense of other areas.
The key question is whether society is better off with the information or without the information. Certainly the UK Government is behind the initiative, and the recent ‘Smarter Government‘ (PDF) document made a commitment to the opening up of datasets. The Government believes it can save money by opening up data, which, of course, is going to be a strong incentive.
For archivists the whole move towards numerous channels of information, open data, mashing up, recombining, reusing, keeping data fluid and dynamic is something of a nightmare from a professional point of view. In addition, if we start to see the benefits of providing everyone with access to all data, enabling them to do new and exciting things with it, then might we change our perspective about appraisal and selection. Does this make it more imperative that we keep everything?
Image: B of the Bang, Manchester