Towards a National Collection

  • September 21, 2021


£14.5m awarded to transform online exploration of UK’s culture and heritage collections through harnessing innovative AI.

In order to connect the UK’s cultural artefacts and historical archives in new and transformative ways, 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.

Five major projects form the largest investment of Towards a National Collection, a five-year research programme. The announcement 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. They will open up public access and facilitate 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.

Daria Cybulska, Director of Programmes and Evaluation at Wikimedia UK said “We were delighted that two Discovery Projects we are involved in were selected for this round of funding by the AHRC. Increasing and diversifying access to UK’s collections and supporting open research is of strategic importance for Wikimedia UK. Through our involvement we will aim to demonstrate the benefits of open knowledge, especially for public engagement, and its abilities to help dissolve barriers between separate collections. We see an exciting amount of overlap between the projects we are directly supporting and our priorities, for example amplifying underrepresented community heritage in the Our Heritage, Our Stories project, and linked open data, including Wikidata in the Congruence Engine project.”

The investigation is the largest of its kind to date. 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 in their work with other sectors. 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.

Read more about the two Discovery Projects Wikimedia UK are engaged in:

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 acclimated 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 digitised 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.

Further information & images

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