Towards a National Collection - £14.5m project to transform online exploration of UK’s culture and heritage collections through harnessing innovative AI

21 September 2021

Towards a National Collection - £14.5m project to transform online exploration of UK’s culture and heritage collections through harnessing innovative AI © Kevin Camidge and Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Maritime Archaeology Society, for Historic England

Ulster University is to take part in one of five major projects receiving between them, £14.5m from Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has awarded £14.5m through its Towards a National Collection Programme 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.

The announcement today of the five major projects forming the largest investment of Towards a National Collection, a five-year research programme, 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 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.

Professor Christopher Smith, Executive Chair, Arts and Humanities Research Council commented:

“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 meets 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.”

Unpath'd Waters: Marine and Maritime Collections in the UK

Ulster University is part of the £2.9 million Unpath'd Waters: Marine and Maritime Collections in the UK Discovery Project.

The UK's marine heritage is extraordinarily rich. Shipwrecks date from the Bronze Age to the World Wars, bearing testimony to Britain and Ireland as island nations, and a destination for trade and migration. Aircraft losses, inundated monuments, ports and seaside resorts all tell personal stories of struggles and successes. Before the Bronze Age, a great deal of what is now the North Sea floor was forest, hill and plains, peopled by prehistoric communities.

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 and artworks. But they are often dispersed, unconnected and inaccessible. This matters because the story of our seas is of huge interest to the UK public, and because our exploitation of our seas for food, leisure, trade and energy is intensifying. If we are to reveal new stories and manage our past effectively and in sustainable ways, we need to join up these collections and unlock their potential.

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, and identifying wrecks and artefacts from them. UNPATH will also deliver tools to protect our most significant heritage, while inviting the public to co-design ways of exploring the archives in order to uncover previously untold stories and new questions to guide future research.

Dr Rory Quinn and Dr Wes Forsythe from Ulster University’s School of Geography and Environmental Sciences, based on the Coleraine campus, will be working together with colleagues from Bangor University in Wales and a range of other partners on how we can use collections of marine scientific datasets to identify located shipwrecks and improve their management.

They commented:

“We are delighted to be involved in this innovative Discovery Project, sharing our knowledge and expertise to improve the heritage management of shipwrecks across the UK. At Ulster University we have a strong track record for excellence in geography, environmental and marine science research. Using our state-of-the-art technologies we will be contributing to an enhanced understanding of submerged cultural heritage via a distinct, science-led approach to archaeological sites.”

Connecting these disparate collections of datasets (multibeam sonar and hydrodynamic/sediment transport models) can enable more effective heritage management of shipwrecks based on better understanding of their condition and long-term integrity.

Moreover, new approaches to identifying the 60% of located unknown or misidentified shipwrecks in UK waters will enable connectivity to documentary collections (shipping and naval archives, vessel plans, insurance records, personal correspondence and photographs etc) whose research access is limited typically to ship names and location of loss data.

Barney Sloane, Historic England’s Principal Investigator for ‘Unpath’d Waters: Marine and Maritime Collections in the UK’ said:

“As an island nation, our maritime heritage is of fundamental importance to who we are. I am delighted to be leading one of the five Discovery Projects known as Unpath’d Waters. It will transform the way in which researchers and the public can access the huge variety of collections held in museums, universities, heritage institutions, commercial organisations and indeed by the public. The project will bring together expertise in digital humanities, computer science and marine heritage and will unleash the massive research potential of our shared maritime past.”

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

“Today, for the first time, we can reveal the direction of travel for one of the UK’s most collaborative research programmes. Collectively, we aim to dissolve the disciplinary silos that exist in universities and public collections. Our driving mission is to open up global access to the UK’s world class collections. 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.”


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