A University of Glasgow-led research project that will use artificial intelligence to explore digital community heritage collections across the UK has been awarded £3.6m as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Towards a National Collection programme to create a unified virtual ‘national collection’.
Our Heritage, Our Stories, which will enable community-generated collections to be linked and explored, is one of five major projects that have been awarded a total of £14.5million in funding by the AHRC to connect the UK’s cultural artefacts and historical archives in new and transformative ways using innovative technologies. Towards a National Collection is a five-year research programme to work on how thousands of disparate collections could be explored by public audiences and academic researchers in the future.
Our Heritage, Our Stories will work for three years with heritage organisations across Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland to explore the vast community-generated reservoir of knowledge about the past which is at risk. This ranges from personal and private collections to websites that explore the histories and culture of geographic areas and neighbourhoods. All of this rich and democratic content is often hard for researchers and the public to discover and use due to its dispersed nature.
The Glasgow-led project will therefore build sophisticated AI-based tools to bring together this community-generated digital content and make it searchable by anyone, anywhere in the world. This content will be showcased through a major public-facing Observatory at The National Archives, where people can access, reuse, and remix these collections.
Our Heritage, Our Stories project partners include The National Archives, The University of Manchester, Tate, British Museum, the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of Wales, the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Archives+, Wikimedia UK, the Association for Learning Technology, the Digital Preservation Coalition, the Software Sustainability Institute, the Dictionaries of the Scots Language & the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Professor Lorna Hughes, Principal Investigator on Our Heritage, Our Stories and Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow, said: “The digital heritage of communities is an enormous and under-used body of content which could immeasurably enrich our national and global understanding – not least because it reflects our diverse, multilingual, and multicultural history and heritage. But all this content is currently fragmented and fragile. Our Heritage, Our Stories will use innovation in AI to unlock, link, and share these collections, and make them visible and usable in a shared national collection, working with an important network of researchers and heritage organisations.”
Professor Marc Alexander, the project’s deputy lead and Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Glasgow, said: “This incredibly exciting project will let us use all the cutting-edge work in linguistic analysis, digital humanities, and natural language processing which we’ve been developing at Glasgow for over three decades. With our partners, especially machine learning experts and world-class historians at Manchester and the amazing team at the National Archives, we are going to be able to unite computational linguistics, information science, cultural heritage, computer science, public history, artificial intelligence, and all sorts of other amazing new fields of study to make a real difference to how we understand ourselves and our past.”
Professor Roibeard O Maolalaigh, Vice Principal and Head of the College of Arts at the University of Glasgow, said: “The College of Arts has been a leader in digital humanities since the 1980s, and this fascinating new project builds on all of our work in uniting new technologies with the study of what it means to be human.
“Our focus on generating new, socially relevant understanding can be seen in the ambition and scope of this project, and I look forward to seeing its outcomes.”
Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, said: “We are delighted that the AHRC has recognised the vision and innovative research being undertaken by colleagues in the College of Arts.
“I would like to offer my warmest congratulations to my colleagues Lorna and Marc – not just for their success with this grant, but also for their work in building this new national partnership with such a strong focus on enhancing and sustaining the UK’s creative economy.
“The University of Glasgow is delighted both to lead Our Heritage, Our Stories and to carry it out in collaboration with such outstanding partners. The research being undertaken is important to help create a unified national collection to meet the needs of a 21st century digital audience but also to protect existing collections for future generations to access, study and enjoy.”
The five AHRC-funded ‘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.
Professor Christopher Smith, Executive Chair, Arts and Humanities Research Council 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 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.”
One of the central aims of TaNC 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.