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Towards a National Collection: Opening UK Heritage to the World


Towards a National Collection is a major five-year £18.9 million investment in the UK’s world-renowned museums, archives, libraries and galleries. The programme will take the first steps towards creating a unified virtual ‘national collection’ by dissolving barriers between different collections – opening UK heritage to the world. By seizing the opportunity presented by new digital technology, it will allow researchers to formulate radically new research questions, increase visitor numbers, dramatically expand and diversify virtual access to our heritage, and bring clear economic, social and health benefits to communities across the UK. The innovation driven by the programme will maintain the UK’s world leadership in digital humanities and set global standards in the field. The Programme’s main objectives are:

  • 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.

Programme delivery

Funding is provided through UK Research and Innovation’s Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF). The programme will be led by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). AHRC has appointed a Programme Director to provide leadership and strategic delivery of the programme.

Rebecca Bailey

Rebecca Bailey

Rebecca Bailey has been appointed as the programme director to lead the Towards a National Collection research programme. She joins from Historic Environment Scotland, where she was Head of Exhibitions and Outreach and will lead the SPF programme over the next 5 years, drawing together the projects funded and developing future recommendations.

“I am delighted to have the opportunity to lead this significant and timely new programme, which has clear potential to dissolve barriers between collections, opening them up to new cross-disciplinary lines of research, and extending public access. This unprecedented funding will allow us to build a strong collaborative research community, bringing together practitioners from across the cultural heritage sector, with academics at the forefront of digital humanities.

“We aim to be active and of benefit right across the UK and to ensure that everything we deliver respects the diversity of both the cultural heritage sector and the public it serves. Towards a National Collection will generate the ideas, exemplars and experiences that instigate and inspire a larger process of transformation in the way everyone can access, research, learn from and enjoy the outstanding collections of the UK’s museums, galleries, archives, libraries and heritage bodies.

Rebecca Bailey, Programme Director, Towards a National Collection

We have also appointed a Steering Committee with expertise, experience and knowledge from within the sector. The full list of members can be found here (PDF, 134KB).

Funding opportunities

Eight small-scale ‘Foundation Projects’ have been commissioned, by expert peer review, to support collaborative research between AHRC’s Independent Research Organisations and Higher-Education Institutions.  The projects will carry out some exploratory research over the next eighteen to twenty-four months.  A list of projects can be found here (PDF, 159KB).

The call for the ‘Discovery Projects’ is open and can be found here. Each of these Discovery projects will involve a core collaboration between one or more UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and one or more of AHRC’s Independent Research Organisations (IROs), as well as further collaboration with local and regional cultural, third sector or community organisations. As well as addressing some of the specific physical, digital and organisational solutions needed to bring together disparate collections across the UK, the aim is that Discovery Projects will together add up to more than the sum of their parts, working in a complementary way to demonstrate the value of unifying collections across types and geographies, and creating public-facing outputs that can be displayed to, and tested with, diverse and/or large-scale audiences across the country.

The full call specification can be found here. The Discovery Projects represent the most substantial part of Towards a National Collection and the call aims to fund up to five projects over a maximum of 36 months within a total funding envelope of up to £15m. The indicative limit for each project is £3 million (80 per cent fEC). This call will have a two-stage application process via UKRI’s Joint Electronic Submission System (JeS), with an outline stage followed by a full proposal stage.

The deadline for outline proposals is: 16:00 GMT, 17 November 2020.

How can I get involved?

We held two events in early March, one in Edinburgh, one in London. A presentation from the events can be seen here (PDF, 2.7MB).

AHRC intend to hold at least four open webinars for applicants to find out further information, ask questions, and begin to discuss initial ideas.  The dates of the webinars are as follows:

  • Wednesday 27 May 2020
  • Monday 1 June 2020
  • Tuesday 2 June 2020
  • Wednesday 3 June 2020

If you wish to attend, please complete the online SmartSurvey which can be found at:


The closing date for applications to take part in a webinar is 17:00 18 May 2020. We aim to achieve a good spread across institutions, expertise and career stages and will be confirming places from 20 May.

Additional webinars may be held at a later stage. If so, the dates will be announced well in advance.

To help organisations form partnerships for the proposals, AHRC has set up a discussion mailing list with JISC for use as a partner matching tool. The mailing list can be found at:


COVID-19 Urgency Call

AHRC also welcomes applications for Towards a National Collection projects under the UKRI open call for research and innovation ideas to address the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts. The programme particularly welcomes research on digital capacity and digital engagement with cultural assets during the lockdown, and on lessons to be learned from these for future patterns of cultural engagement. Further guidance on making an application to Towards a National Collection under this call can be found in the Call Guidance Document (PDF, 143KB).

Applications should be made using the form listed on the UKRI Coronavirus hub, following the Call Guidance there. The application form and accompanying documents must sent as a single PDF to CV19researchinnovation@ukri.org. Proposals will be accepted from anyone eligible to apply for AHRC funding. The call is open and early applications are encouraged.


Please get in touch with us at: National.Collection@AHRC.ukri.org

Karen Buchanan, Strategy and Development Manager, Heritage
T: 01793 416032

David Selway, Portfolio Manager, Heritage
T: 01793 416122

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