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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.  We will publish the list of members as soon as membership is finalised.

Funding opportunities

Eight small-scale foundational 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 most substantial part of Towards a National Collection, will comprise up to five large-scale interdisciplinary ‘Discovery’ research projects, and AHRC will soon be launching a call for these.  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. It is anticipated projects will be able to apply for up to £3 million (80 per cent fEC) for a period of up to 39 months, with up to five projects being funded and the total funding envelope for all Discovery projects not exceeding £15m.

As well as addressing some of the specific physical, digital and organisational solutions needed to bring together disparate and yet complementary collections across the UK, AHRC are determined that the 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, large-scale audiences across the country.

The full call specification will be published in late April 2020.  The application process will be a two-stage process via UKRI’s Joint Electronic Submission System (JeS).  The closing date for short outline bids will be 8th September 2020, with those invited to the second stage needing to submit full bids by 28th January 2021. Successful projects are expected to start between June and September 2021.

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).

There will be three further events in May (likely to be Edinburgh, London and Birmingham or Manchester).  The events will provide the opportunity to learn more about the programme and the funding call for large collaborative research projects.  Further information on how to sign-up will be added here shortly.   


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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