Australians to help transform UK heritage collections through artificial intelligence

The University of Western Australia is a partner in an innovative new project to harness artificial intelligence and emerging technologies to address challenges surrounding access to the UK’s culture and heritage collections. 

Britain’s Arts and Humanities Research Council has announced $27m (£14.5m) in funding to Towards a National Collection for the research and development of emerging technologies in order to connect the UK’s cultural artefacts and historical archives.

Collecting the West, which looks at what’s been collected from WA, is an Australian Research Council-funded project and a collaboration between UWA and Deakin University in partnership with WA’s key collecting institutions and the British Museum.

Five Towards National Collection ARC Discovery Projects will receive funding and the Collecting the West team and the British Museum are two of the partners for the project The Sloane Lab: Looking back to build future shared collections. 

The project, led by UWA’s Professor Alistair Paterson and Deakin’s Professor Andrea Witcomb, will focus on the vast collections of Anglo-Irish naturalist Sir Hans Sloane in public institutions.

Professor Paterson said researchers would work with expert communities, including museum audiences, to link the present with the past to allow the connections between Sloane’s collections and catalogues to be re-established.

“Our work reveals how the creation of national collections is a larger global story of networks through which collections circulate.”
– Professor Alistair Paterson

The main outcome of the project will be a freely available, online digital lab – the Sloane lab – that will offer researchers, curators and the public new opportunities to search, explore, and engage critically with key questions about our digital cultural heritage.

The project’s central questions include: How can we make specialist users and members of the public more aware of the contested nature of museum collections? What is the role of digital tools in facilitating discussions on imperialism, colonialism, slavery and the loss and destruction that shaped the national collection? 

In addition to innovative online access, the projects will generate artist commissions, community fellowships, computer simulations, and travelling exhibitions.

The Collecting the West team will work with the British Museum, Natural History Museum, British Library, Historic Environment Scotland, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, National Museums of Scotland, Archives and Records Association, Down County Museum, National Galleries of Scotland, and Oxford University Herbaria.