University of London researchers in £2.9m AI drive to make historical collections more accessible to the public

Tuesday 21 September 2021
Image by Colin McDowall, courtesy of Towards a National Collection

 

Researchers at the University of London's School of Advanced Study (SAS) are part of a pioneering new project – Congruence Engine – that will explore the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to make historical and museum collections more accessible to researchers and the public.

Congruence Engine will exploit AI techniques to link and release the research potential of a huge range of digital heritage resources. It will uncover new ways of researching historical artefacts and data. It will also help develop ways to link researchers and members of the public with the historical and museum collections they are most interested in.

Led by the Science Museum Group, with multiple university and cultural heritage partners, it is the first major award of funding for SAS's new Digital Humanities Research Hub headed by Professor Jane Winters. She will be one of the co-investigators, and she was also a co-investigator for the ‘Towards a National Collection’ Foundation initiative, Heritage Connector, which feeds in to this much larger project. It is a great opportunity to build on existing work and developing an existing collaboration.

SAS is employing a full-time digital humanities postdoctoral research associate, and Professor Winters will be responsible for the project’s digital humanities work package. Among other things, it will identify and address bias in the data and tools used for this kind of work.

The research questions for this work package are: How do technology choices affect research processes and introduce biases, with what ethical implications? How do visualisation and digital mediation/remediation affect historical practice, including historians’ qualitative and quantitative readings? How can participatory co-design enhance digital effectiveness? How can the ‘translating’ function of digital humanities work most effectively to bring together historians, digital schools and other project partners?

The Congruence Engine project will run for three years. It’s part of a wider programme of five ‘Discovery’ projects funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of the Towards a National Collection programme. Professor Christopher Smith, AHRC’s executive chair, notes that: ‘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.’

We’re delighted that the School’s Digital Humanities Research Hub will be partnering in this exciting project, which aims to open museum collections to new audiences and support research into Britain’s industrial heritage,’ comments Professor Winters. ‘It’s a wonderful opportunity to build on previous work with the Science Museum Group, and to be part of the wider Towards a National Collection programme.’

Universities and cultural organisations like museums produce masses of digital resources. These range from basic exhibition catalogues with useful information to full-scale project websites, many of which are first class but underused and/or difficult to find. The aim of this project, and the wider investments and remits, is to use AI techniques to link and give value to these materials so that their full potential can be revealed to researchers and the public too for public engagement in a ‘true national collection valuable to scholars, the public and museums’.

The research and publications processes themselves are also grist to the mill so that valuable techniques and tools, like open source software for example, are evaluated and validated for future users. While artificial intelligence has been a ‘buzz’ term for some time, many people in education are still unfamiliar with its practices and applications.

‘The project will allow us to experiment with digital tools and techniques for exploring museum collections data, combining data science, digital humanities and historical expertise to provide new insights into histories of textiles, energy and communications,’ adds Professor Winters. ‘It will support groundbreaking academic research, but also public engagement and interaction with fascinating data stories. We’re looking forward to getting started!’

Ends

Notes for Editors

For more information, please contact Maureen McTaggart, Media Communications Manager, University of London, Maureen.Mctaggart@sas.ac.uk / +44 (0)20 7862 8859 

  1. The School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities. SAS and its member institutes offer unparalleled resources, facilities and academic opportunities across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. Last year SAS welcomed 996 research fellows and associates, held 1,500 events highlighting the latest research in the humanities, received 31.6 million online visits to its research resources and platforms, and hosted 100,119 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. SAS also leads Being Human, the UK’s only nationwide festival of the humanities. Find out more at www.sas.ac.uk or follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews. 
     
  2. The University of London is a federal University and is one of the oldest, largest and most diverse universities in the UK. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the University is recognised globally as a world leader in higher education. It consists of 17 independent member institutions of outstanding reputation, together with a number of prestigious central academic bodies and activities. Learn more about the University of London at http://www.london.ac.uk.  
     
  3. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, funds internationally outstanding independent researchers across the whole range of the arts and humanities: history, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, languages and literature, design, heritage, area studies, the creative and performing arts, and much more. The quality and range of research supported by AHRC works for the good of UK society and culture and contributes both to UK economic success and to the culture and welfare of societies across the globe. Find out more at ahrc.ukri.org, or on Twitter at @ahrcpress.
     
  4. Towards a National Collection is a major five-year research and development programme that aims to underpin the creation of a unified virtual ‘national collection’, dissolving barriers between the different collections of the UK’s museums, archives, libraries and galleries. Its ambition is to extend and diversify researcher and public access to our world-renowned collections beyond the physical boundaries of their location. The innovation driven by the programme will help to maintain the UK’s world leadership in digital humanities and set global standards in the field. The programme is funded through a £18.9 million investment by UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Strategic Priorities Fund and delivered by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The programme Directorate is based at the Independent Research Organisation, Historic Environment Scotland. More information on the TaNC website https://www.nationalcollection.org.uk/, or on Twitter at @nat_collection