Towards a National Collection: massive digital access to heritage

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Towards a National Collection is an initiative to create a unified virtual collection of art and heritage housed among the United Kingdom’s cultural institutions. The project has a five-year timeline, which will set collaboration and communication amongst professionals in the sector and easy access to heritage for all.

The project answers a real need for access to heritage, amplified due to the pandemic. Several collections in the country constitute international heritage thus joining them online offers a chance for everyone to connect with their heritage. Furthermore, the platform will facilitate researchers and developers of digital technologies.


  • “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.”

Towards a National Collection has several projects to achieve their aims,  notably the Discovery projects dedicated to R&D of new technologies like artificial intelligence pertinent to machine learning, natural language processing, and citizen-led archiving. The project proposes several participatory and community actions for content generation, diversity, collection interpretation and more.

In practice, some of the projects already underway are:

The Congruence Engine: Digital Tools for New Collections-Based Industrial Histories

The project will create a digital toolbox consolidating holdings related to the industrial past of the textiles, energy and communications sectors. This unified collection will enable the public and researchers to explore, experience and interpret them in a broader context.

The platform will link objects, documentation, photographs, publications etc., in one space. AI will process existing data and receive feedback from users to refine the experience and content. This could consist of: comprehensive descriptions, grouping objects of the same provenance held in different museums, direct access to related archives and more.

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

People as individuals and communities already have “gathered, recorded, and digitised their collections”. The project develops methods for AI to find, analyse and make searchable community-generated digital content in different languages and formats. Linking peoples life and stories, therefore, into our heritage collection.

Transforming Collections: Reimagining Art, Nation and Heritage

The project will concentrate on collections and research of art critics and historians with museum and heritage studies. The project uses participatory machine learning design to create an unbiased cross-search of collections.

The Sloane Lab: Looking back to build future shared collections

The Sloane Lab will be a digital lab for curators, researchers and the public to examine the topic of digital cultural heritage through access to the Sir Hans Sloane collection establishing links between past and present.

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

UNPATH will create a new cross-collection search, visualise underwater landscapes and methods of identifying wrecks and artefacts of the UK’s marine heritage. The collections include: “charts, documents, images, film, oral histories, sonar surveys, seismic data, bathymetry, archaeological investigations, artefacts, objects and artwork”.

Our take

Towards a National Collection and Discovery projects is an ambitious but necessary undertaking in the world of heritage. Culture is essential to our sense of identity and well-being, which can harmonise society. Providing access to all heritage holdings will help further develop research in the field. Moreover, the projects will inspire other platforms or initiatives to unify heritage access and use of emerging technology across the world.

I want to learn more:

Towards a National Collection 


Discovery Projects

Tech projects aiming to better connect the UK’s collections awarded £14.5m

UK Research and Innovation’s Strategic Priorities Fund

Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)

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