Creating a joined-up approach to sharing, using and preserving digital collections seamlessly across all UK museums to support research and increase public access has been an ongoing sector challenge.

Solving that challenge will increase access to millions of records about hundreds of museum collections, and change the way UK museums can work with their audiences, external partners and each other. In 2020 the museum support charity Collections Trust undertook a discovery project to develop a proposal on how best to realise the value of museum collections data.

In 2020–21, we set up a stimulus fund as part of the fourth year of the ODI’s R&D programme – funded by Innovate UK – and our broader programme of work on data institutions. The fund aimed to help explore approaches that enable trustworthy and ethical data sharing to help citizens and businesses lower their impact on the environment, improve public services and save lives.

Support from the stimulus fund gave us the time and opportunity to reflect on why past efforts to tackle this problem have failed, question many existing assumptions and re-think what an open ecosystem for collections data might look like. The ODI’s involvement piqued the interest of our stakeholders and gave a fresh impetus to our discussions with them

– Kevin Gosling, Chief Executive, Collections Trust

Key facts and figures

  • Collections Trust has proposed a ‘framework for change’ it hopes will transform the way collections data flows between UK museums, their audiences, and their partners in academia and the creative industries.
  • The framework includes three strategic interventions that would turn activity that is currently siloed and short-lived into an ecosystem of linked resources properly preserved over the long term. 
  • The proposed interventions have the potential to start small, but be scaled up and rolled out nationwide, with a sustainable business and engagement model being produced as part of the project.
  • The framework for change helps to rekindle conversation with key stakeholders and policymakers. It presents a fresh approach to an old problem, and aligns withmany digital initiatives currently underway, especially the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s £19m research programme: Towards a National Collection.

What was the challenge?

Many sectors could benefit from increased access to data, via institutions that steward and provide access to data. For the UK museum sector, unlocking the value of data held across the UK’s 1,700 museum collections has been a challenge ever since a first attempt was made to create a ‘compendious index in 1888’. Unlike their counterparts in most European countries and elsewhere, UK museums have not yet arrived at a shared vision on how to aggregate, share and preserve their collection data.

Despite more than two decades of sustained efforts to digitise museum content, and with the notable exception of the paintings and sculptures brought together by Art UK, it is still not possible to search across the nation’s collections. Collection data is still mostly managed and maintained by individual organisations. Furthermore legacy data and digitised items often become inaccessible once the projects that created them have finished. In this fragile and fragmented landscape, the full value of museum-collection data has not been exploited and is at risk of being lost.

The big mistake we've made in our public institutions over the last 10 to 15 years, as digital has gone mainstream, is we have not understood that the strategy needs to be about the health of ecosystems rather than individual products and platforms

– Matt Locke, Director of Storythings, Chair of The Audience Agency, Creator of The Public Media Stack

Finding sustainable solutions to these problems will transform the ability of UK museums to link, share and preserve their digitised collections. This can enable these organisations to meet their public mission to preserve and transmit knowledge, culture and history through extending the reach and impact on people both in the UK and beyond. Increased access and ability to search across multiple collections will help to drive international loans of artworks, increase public access to collections and further art historical research and discovery.

How is Collections Trust solving the problem?

Building on extensive desk research and interviews with experts from many sectors and countries, Collections Trust framed its discovery project around three challenges to outline a proposal for a decentralised data access initiative.

  • A framework of change that proposes three main activities:
    • A connect-and-collect service that would gather source data from museums and make this raw data available online without much processing.
    • A use-and-enhance interface where search engines, such as Elasticsearch, would enable advanced users to access the raw data.
    • A store-and-preserve approach that proposes a new, sector-wide digital preservation strategy that makes better use of money currently being spent by individual museums and projects on ad hoc, short-term digital storage.
  • A leadership and governance model based on guiding principles drawn from the experience of past museum data-sharing initiatives in the UK and internationally.
  • A business model that embraces and works with the established pattern of short-term funding for digital activity in UK museums, which seems unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

In forming a view on what is needed to establish a sustainable framework for a decentralised data access initiative, Collections Trust has concentrated on a few lightweight and scalable solutions that will bring together and preserve the benefits of the time-limited projects that are characteristic of the sector. The outline framework is published on its website.

We believe the proposed framework would transform the ability of UK museums and their users to tap the full potential of collections data they already have, through work they are already doing, and with funding streams that – mostly – already exist

– Kevin Gosling, Chief Executive, Collections Trust

What was the impact of taking this approach?

Collections Trust has demonstrated the value of adapting its approach as its thinking evolved. It recognised that the patchwork nature of the UK museum sector and arm's-length nature of the relationship between government and leading sector bodies makes a central aggregator, of the kind found in many other countries, untenable in the UK. Instead it proposes a flexible and sustainable framework, nurtured by enabling institutions and developed according to a set of shared guiding principles. The insights generated should inform policymakers and help a wide range of interested parties to recognise their shared need to get the raw material they want out of siloed databases and make it findable and usable.

Preservation to Presentation is just one of many initiatives which knows the wealth of opportunities that will flow from the proposed ‘connect and collect’ service. Creating this critical foundation from which collections can be easily discovered and reused will be tough, but a coherent national initiative is the only way. Time for the UK to lead

– Dave Thomas, Preservation to Preservation project

Although it was only a discovery project, the stimulus fund programme enabled Collections Trust to restart the conversation with key stakeholders with something new to say. The project has also laid the foundations for Collections Trust to build strategic partnerships, and a number of promising opportunities are already being explored.

Lessons learned

  1. Sometimes less is more. It was a lightbulb moment for Collections Trust to realise it could focus on a few, relatively modest interventions rather than working on a full-scale programme.
  2. The focus on a few achievable actions, and the need to explain them as clearly as possible, meant that much of the wider-ranging material gathered in the research was not included.
  3. Having a visual layout of a plan really helps to develop and explain the rationale and methodology. The framework diagram that Collections Trust produced has been invaluable in presentations and conversations.
  4. An important learning was to start with a tighter and more focused initial scope. The team felt that the initial scope and complexity of the data, and the huge number of potential stakeholders and end-use scenarios, was too broad and it was difficult to highlight the fairly simple initial steps needed to start a project.

What next

Collections Trust will continue to advocate for support to realise its proposal for a decentralised data-access initiative. Following on from the project, it is now liaising with an academic partner to host its ‘Connect and collect’ service, and continues to petition the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to support the idea of a national digital preservation framework.

If you are interested in the research of the Collections Trust please read its report: ‘Getting it together: realising the value of museum collections data’ and listen to the ODI Friday Lunchtime lecture: ‘Tapping the potential of UK museum collections’.

Find out more

If you are interested in the research or work ODI is doing into data institutions and data access initiatives please get in touch with a member of the team.

Other recipients of the data access stimulus fund award were Open Climate Fix, Your Dsposal, DNV, Open Data Manchester, ODI Leeds and Etic Lab. Find out more about the stimulus fund and what we learned here.