We are creating a unified UKRI website that brings together the existing research council, Innovate UK and Research England websites.
If you would like to be involved in its development let us know.

Ten Most Wanted

Inspired by the FBI’s list, a collaborative research project at a specialist museum is using crowd-sourcing to enhance its own collection and inspire other museums.

There aren't many obvious similarities between a Russian fraudster believed to have pocketed $150 million from unsuspecting investors and a bright green plastic watering can. In fact, there's probably only one: they both feature prominently on a 'Ten Most Wanted' website. Semion Mogilevich is number eight on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) infamous 'Ten Most Wanted' list, while the green plastic watering can is one of the first objects in a similarly titled experiment at the Museum of Design in Plastics (MoDiP) at the Arts University Bournemouth.

MoDiP's Ten Most Wanted was directly inspired by the FBI's list, which has been in circulation since 1949 and published on the internet for almost 20 years. MoDiP, which has been around for 25 years, is the UK's only fully accredited plastics museum. Instead of catching criminals, MoDiP is hoping that its Ten Most Wanted will help to fill in gaps in its records relating to the provenance of the 12,000 objects currently in its collection.

The museum is run by Professor Susan Lambert, who in a previous role oversaw the establishment of the 20th Century Design Gallery at the V&A. The museum is unusual not only in its subject matter, but also in how it acts as a resource to academic researchers and contemporary designers alike. With so many objects in its archives and little space to display them, Lambert has been acutely aware of the power of the internet to access her collection since the museum was established.

“We see ourselves as an online museum as much as a physical one,” Professor Lambert says, “We get used by researchers and students a lot, but also a lot by designers.”

Plastics, she continues, are a much overlooked part of modern history. While most design museums focus on a few well known designers or pieces, there's surprisingly little effort to catalogue the vast majority of manufactured plastics which have been so instrumental in shaping the cultural history of the last half a century or so.

“Documentation of objects is crucial to make them useful,” says Susan Lambert, “The more you know about them, the more you can help people to use your collection. Plastic things have a tendency to be anonymous... It can be an awful lot easier to trace the provenance of an 18th Century teapot than a plastic beaker.”

This disposable nature of modern products means that there are large gaps in the documentation of many of the artefacts in MoDiP's collection. Plastics aren't hallmarked, like gold or silver objects, and often carry little information beyond country of manufacture – if that. There is one useful thing available to the curator of a museum of plastics which isn't available to someone trying to provenance a late 18th century teapot: many of the objects held by MoDiP were made within living memory.

If the museum team want to know where a particular object was manufactured, why not ask the general public if they know?

The idea for Ten Most Wanted was conceived by Phil Blume of Adaptive Technologies, who had worked with Lambert on the design of the museum website. Together they sought funding from the Digital Research & Development Fund for the Arts — supported by Nesta, Arts Council England and the AHRC to help arts projects in England explore how digital technologies can help to engage audiences with art in new ways — to run the project as an experiment in 'crowdsourcing' information of a high enough standard to be included in a museum catalogue. The model underpinning the Fund — which now has counterpart programmes in Wales and Scotland sees researchers brought together with technologists and arts organisations to explore questions around audience engagement and new business models, questions of central importance for the Ten Most Wanted project.

“When we built the website, we linked all the data in the catalogue by taxonomy — designers, era, manufacturer, purpose and so on — so that you can navigate the collection easily and in multiple ways,” Phil Blume says, “The idea was to make it very easy to use for a variety of purposes and by a variety of audiences. There was lots of data that was unknown, however, and about a year ago I was sitting here thinking about what to do next.

“The buzz in the museum world at the time was around crowdsourcing, game play and how to use social networks to engage audiences,” he continues, “I started thinking about the collection and the fact that there were all these unknowns that you might remember owning or that your parents owned. These are not objects that are lost in the mists of time - it's not Ancient Egypt - many are still available today.”

Crowdsourcing — drawing information from the 'crowd' using online tools — has been used by museums and other academic researchers before, but in the past has been restricted to relatively manual, unskilled tasks which can't be performed by computers. The most famous is arguably Galaxy Zoo, an astronomical research site in which the general public sifts through photographs taken by space telescopes and identifies the shape of extra-terrestrial objects captured within. The number of images is too large and the shapes of galaxies too feint to be reliably classified by computer algorithms, but humans are very good at basic pattern recognition. Anyone can take part in Galaxy Zoo, and if enough people independently agree there's something interesting in an image, it will get examined by professional researchers and possibly classified as a new galaxy.

This is the 'gamification' of science, a simple game to play in which the reward is adding a small amount to the sum of human knowledge. It's also very popular, and hundreds of thousands of people take part in Galaxy Zoo.

When it launches in October, however, MoDiP's Ten Most Wanted project will be asking a lot more of its volunteers than clicking through a long list of images. Unlike other academic crowdsourcing exercises, Ten Most Wanted will ask people to become investigative researchers in their own right, not just offering suggestions but helping to verify new data with site visits, interviews and photographs. They'll be guided primarily through a Facebook group and discussions on the 10 Most Wanted site.

“We're trying to give people real problems to solve,” says Phil Blume, “We don't know where the trail ends for a lot of these objects. It could be a design office in Hong Kong or Milton Keynes, and you won't find it by tapping on a keyboard.”

Hopefully, he continues, Ten Most Wanted will also prove useful as a promotional tool for the museum, increasing the number of visitors to the collection itself too.

Lambert is well aware that this may be too much for the prospective audience, but believes that there's value in trying Ten Most Wanted all the same.

“Our focus isn't about finding stuff out about objects,” Professor Lambert is clear, “It's about coming up with a methodology other museums can copy. The end of the project will see the final reports being written and the research and learning resources gathered together and disseminated.”

In order to help increase the probability that the Ten Most Wanted project is effective and to ensure that it is documented correctly for others to follow, MoDiP brought in a research specialist in the area of human computer interaction (HCI), Marcus Winter of the University of Brighton.

“My personal interest is in user-generated content,” he says, “Ten Most Wanted fits really well into that. There are lots of game-based crowdsourcing initiatives but they all follow a fairly lightweight model where very simple little bits can be dished out that don't require commitment or specialist knowledge.”

Susan Lambert, for her part, has tried to make the initial ten objects as interesting and as varied as possible, including objects from overseas to try and interest an international audience in her line-up. She's already canvassed support from British Plastics and Rubber magazine, and the Plastics Historical Society. The first ten objects — including green plastic watering can — are online now, and there's another 40 which have already been selected to replace them should the initial objects become fully researched or fail to stimulate interest.

She's also already thinking about other collections that could benefit from the 10 Most Wanted idea if it proves successful, including film posters, photographs and more. She'll know for sure come April next year.

For further information about this project please go to the Ten Most Wanted website.

For further information about the Digital Research & Development Fund for the Arts, visit the fund website

Article by Adam Oxford

Return to features