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AI supports museums collection exploration as part of £14.5m research programme

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has awarded £14.5m to the research and development of emerging technologies as part of a five-year research programme Towards a National Collection.

The investigation is the largest of its kind to be undertaken to date, anywhere in the world

A central aim for Towards a National Collection is to set a global standard for other countries building their own collections, enhancing collaboration between the UK’s renowned heritage and national collections worldwide.

The funding is part of an £18.9m investment from the UK Research and Innovation’s Strategic Priorities Fund and links UK museums, galleries, libraries, universities and archives with organisations across the world.

The AHRC said: “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 more than 120 individual researchers and collaborators.”

Five Discovery Projects have been announced today, which the AHRC say will begin to reveal how thousands of disparate collections could be explored using AI by public audiences and academic researchers in the future.

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

The Discovery Projects will:

  • Connect the UK’s cultural artefacts and historical archives in new and transformative ways.
  • Harness the potential of new technology to dissolve barriers between collections.
  • Open up public access and facilitating research across a range of sources and stories held in different physical locations.
  • Empower and diversify audiences by involving them in the research and creating new ways for them to access and interact with collections.
  • Generate artist commissions, community fellowships, computer simulations, and travelling exhibitions.

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.” 

The five Discovery Projects

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

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 and documents
  • images and film
  • oral histories
  • sonar survey and seismic data
  • bathymetry
  • archaeological investigations
  • artefacts, objects and 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

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.


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.

About the author – Adrian Murphy

Adrian is the Editor of MuseumNext and has 20 years’ experience as a journalist, half of which has been writing for the cultural sector.

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