People viewing artefacts at exhibition
The Mary Rose hull and Context Gallery where artefacts are displayed on a mirrored side of the hull based on where they were excavated from. Courtesy Hufton+Crow © Mary Rose Trust
The Mary Rose hull and Context Gallery where artefacts are displayed on a mirrored side of the hull based on where they were excavated from. Courtesy Hufton+Crow © Mary Rose Trust

Towards a National Collection

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has awarded £14.5 million 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 (21 September 2021) 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.

Historic England is leading on one of the five ‘Discovery Projects’ - a maritime project known as Unpath'd Waters: It spans 23,000 years of maritime history and aims to make collections of charts, documents, images, film, oral histories, sonar surveys, seismic data, archaeological investigations and artefacts more easily accessible to the public.

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.

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.

Professor Christopher Smith, Executive Chair Arts and Humanities Research Council

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.

Barney Sloane, National Specialist Services Director and Principal Investigator for ‘Unpath’d Waters: Marine and Maritime Collections in the UK Historic England

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

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. 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’d Waters 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’d Waters 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.

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