Towards a National Collection

Towards a National Collection (TaNC) is a major five-year £18.9 million investment in the UK’s world-renowned museums, archives, libraries and galleries. Funding is provided through UK Research and Innovation’s Strategic Priorities Fund and delivered by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The programme will take the first steps towards creating a unified virtual ‘national collection’ by dissolving barriers between different collections.

The programme’s main objectives are:

  • to begin to dissolve barriers between different collections
  • to open up collections to new cross-disciplinary and cross-collection lines of research
  • to extend researcher and public access beyond the physical boundaries of their location
  • to benefit a diverse range of audiences
  • to be active and of benefit across the UK
  • to provide clear evidence and exemplars that support enhanced funding going forward

Discovery Projects

The AHRC has awarded £14.5 million as part of its Towards a National Collection programme to five major projects involved in 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. One of the five projects is Our Heritage, Our Stories: Linking and searching community-generated digital content to develop the people’s national collection, which is a collaboration between the University of Glasgow, The National Archives and the University of Manchester.

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

In the past two decades, communities have adopted digital technologies to gather and record 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). CGDC has proved extraordinarily resistant to traditional methods of linking and integration, for lack of infrastructure and the complexity of the content.

Our Heritage, Our Stories will bring together a powerful partnership, including researchers in digital humanities, archives, history and computer science with world-leading archive development to dissolve existing barriers and develop scalable linking and discoverability for CGDC.

The project will make CGDC more discoverable and accessible while respecting and embracing its complexity and diversity. This new accessibility will be showcased through a major new public-facing CGDC online Observatory at The National Archives where people can access, reuse and remix these newly integrated collections.

Foundation Projects

The National Archives has two Foundation Projects as part of this programme: Deep Discoveries and Engaging Crowds: Citizen research and heritage data at scale. These projects lay the foundations for a virtual national collection by identifying and addressing the current or future challenges facing the formation of such a collection.

There are eight Foundation Projects in total, running between early 2020 and 2021/2022. Each project is a collaboration between at least one Independent Research Organisation (IRO) and one Higher Education Institution and includes relevant non-IRO organisations. Learn more about the two Foundation Projects we are a part of below.

Deep Discoveries

The way we access information in the virtual space is changing. Discovery and exploration are no longer constrained by a keyword entered into a blank search bar. Instead, museums, libraries, archives, and galleries worldwide are welcoming a shift to ‘generous interfaces’ – presenting their collections online in browsable and linkable networks of information. These allow users to explore and discover new ideas through meaningful and contextualised relationships.

A key component in this emerging virtual browsing landscape is ‘visual search’, an AI-based method for matching similar images based on their visual characteristics (colour, pattern, shape), rather than a keyword description. The Deep Discoveries project aims to create a computer vision search platform that can identify and match images across digitised collections on a national scale. The research will focus on botanically themed content, allowing us to test how far we can stretch the recognition capabilities of the technology. Can it recognise a rose in a textile pattern and the same flower in a herbarium specimen? How about on a ceramic vase?

Deep Discoveries is a collaboration between The National Archives, the University of Surrey, Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh and the V&A. We will start with approximately 30,000 botanical images from the institutions and our project partners Gainsborough Weaving Company, the Sanderson Design Archive, and the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture. The wide range of partners will also allow us to explore the necessary criteria for our nation’s image collections to be linked, and to survey the searching needs of diverse audiences.

Engaging Crowds: Citizen research and heritage data at scale

Members of the research community understand the tremendous benefits and rewards that can come from engaging volunteers in heritage research projects. Involving volunteers can help bring to life projects that might not have been possible due to limited time, resources and staff. Not only does citizen research enrich our understanding of heritage material, it gives volunteers the opportunity to work on passion projects they may not have imagined or received an education in previously. Digital spaces have opened up new opportunities for volunteers to help classify, annotate or transcribe collections. This has led to reaching new milestones that would be very difficult to reach with just a small team of staff or limited funding.

Engaging Crowds recognises the vital contribution of volunteer researchers and aims to investigate the practice of citizen research in the heritage sector. It explores the current and potential practice of engaging diverse audiences with the creation, use and reuse of heritage data.

It asks:

  • How do audiences currently engage with citizen research projects?
  • How do different institutions assess, present and value the work of volunteers?
  • What is the best way to engage volunteers in these projects in the future?

The partners will hold several workshops with groups that receive data volunteers produce: collections-holding organisations, machine-learning algorithms, and the citizens themselves. The project will develop a new indexing tool that gives volunteers the agency to choose their own pathway through a project, which will then be evaluated by three new citizen research projects. A report based on these findings together will recommend the best ways of encouraging and supporting meaningful public interaction with heritage collections.

Engaging Crowds is led by The National Archives, with the Zooniverse team at the University of Oxford, Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, and National Maritime Museum. All partners have significant experience of conducting citizen research projects, not least using Zooniverse, a free, open source platform with more than 1.9 million volunteers worldwide. Engaging Crowds aims to promote open discovery and research, inter-disciplinary working across sectors and equality, diversity and inclusion.

Volunteer recruitment has now begun for our citizen research project Scarlets and Blues. For more information please visit the project website.

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