Towards a National Collection

Christopher Catling, Contributing Editor for CA, delves into the eccentricities of the heritage world.

Thanks to COVID-19, big changes have taken place almost overnight in the ways that we communicate with each other. Tools such as Zoom and Teams, Skype and Webex, offering video-based meeting facilities, are not new – some have been around since the last century – but far fewer of us were using them until February 2020. They have since become part of everyone’s daily lives, transforming the ways in which learning is delivered in schools, colleges, and universities; business meetings are held; societies deliver lectures and events; faith groups deliver religious services; and arts organisations put on concerts, performances, and exhibitions.

It’s not the same as hanging out with real people, and we are all longing for some live interaction again – the difference, for example, between watching sport on TV or listening to music on CD and being part of the crowd at a live game, concert, or gig. But it has shown us that it is possible to connect people in ways that were considered the stuff of fantasy or science fiction only two decades ago, and it has added tools to our repertoire that will make a permanent difference to the ways in which people live their lives and do their work, widening the range of activities that we will undertake in future sitting in front of a screen.

BELOW Linking data from religious institutions across the UK would allow researchers to appreciate places of worship, their furnishings, and their memorials as a whole.
Linking data from religious institutions across the UK would allow researchers to appreciate places of worship, their furnishings, and their memorials as a whole. Photo: Hilton Teper, Creative Commons.

But this great leap forward in interpersonal communication has yet to be matched by data connectivity – that is to say, in our ability to search across the mountains of data held around the world to produce meaningful answers to quite simple questions. Google is excellent at listing websites that might hold relevant information, and Wikipedia does a very good job of providing a condensed overview of any particular topic, but try (as many public bodies did earlier this year) to produce a list of public monuments commemorating people with slavery or empire connections and it will take many months to get even a partial answer.

Towards a National Collection

That is one of the reasons why the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the body that channels public money into university research in these fields, launched a new funding stream in March, called ‘Towards a National Collection’ (TaNC). Targeted primarily at the heritage sector, this new initiative asked applicants to imagine what new sorts of innovative research would be possible if some of the UK’s numerous stand-alone databases could be linked using innovative digital technology.

In a radical new departure, the AHRC is also insisting that projects developed under this banner should go beyond the usual elite of universities and those IROs (Independent Research Organisations) deemed sufficiently ‘research active’ to be eligible to apply for AHRC funding – bodies such as Historic England, Historic Environment Scotland, MOLA, and the National Trust. On this occasion they have stipulated that community engagement and citizen science must be a core element in any project, and that national record-holding institutions, such as the Archaeology Data Service and the National Archives, must also be involved.

Rarely do the research councils generate much excitement by their funding calls, but on this occasion it seems that everyone is putting in an application: some national museums, archives, and IROs have been inundated with partnership proposals and have had to limit their involvement to three projects. Writing an application to the AHRC may seem simple enough – a case for support of no more than six pages is required – but building a partnership, agreeing who will do what, developing a three-year management plan, and drawing up a budget are all very time-consuming activities and, sad to say, the capacity of many universities, museums, and heritage institutions to undertake such work has been hit hard by COVID-related redundancies.

Opening UK heritage to the world

A collective sigh of relief went up when all the cases for support were posted by the deadline of 4pm on 17 November 2020: now the scores of applicants will have to wait until the peer-reviewers have sifted through the projects and whittled them down to the five to eight proposals that will go forward to a more detailed planning phase, each with a potential budget of up to £3m. Among the contenders is a study of the built-heritage legacy of the Atlantic slave trade – a highly topical field for research. Another study will look at the history of the home by linking museum collection databases, archaeological finds, and inventories. There are plans to join up the maritime heritage databases of the four UK nations, Lloyd’s Register, and the collections of maritime museums around the UK – so that researchers can study the seabed holistically, not hampered in their enquiries by territorial boundaries. There are plans to bring together scattered archives of travel writing and journals, which contain valuable information about, for example, early industry or attitudes towards ancient buildings and monuments.

The new Unique Property Reference Numbers (UPRNs) allow whole properties to be mapped across multiple Ordnance Survey coordinates, and not just as single points in which a sometimes-arbitrary coordinate has to be chosen. photo: contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2010.

Another project aims to link up the scattered records relating to places of worship in the UK, many of them created by volunteers and specialist societies, which will gain in significance and context from being brought together, so that researchers can understand places of worship, their furnishings, and their memorials as a whole, rather than having to reconstruct a jigsaw of 1,000 pieces. And a valuable outcome will be the identification of the missing jigsaw pieces: joining records up means we can also spot the gaps and launch projects to fill them. Hence the citizen-science element in the places of worship proposal – in an ideal world, every community in the UK would be motivated to make a record of the places of worship in their community and perhaps out of this might emerge a desire to help preserve these precious repositories of art, architectural, social, and natural history. And is it possible that, with so many good projects coming forward, the AHRC might decide to allocate additional money to the TaNC funding pot? Sherds will report in due course.

Persistent identifiers

Archaeology was one of the first disciplines to recognise the value of geographic information systems (GIS) for cataloguing data. Many archaeological sites and finds relate to a specific place on the map, and many people searching for information are interested in a particular settlement, building, or plot of land, so it makes sense to index them by using geographical grid coordinates and search for them using a map. Single map points do have their disadvantages, however. Much depends on what spot on the map you choose to select – fields, buildings, and estates may spread over multiple grid-points and, in some cases, a precise find-spot is not known, so it is a matter of judgement where, for example, you locate the site of a battle or a find known only from an imprecise antiquarian record.

The Ordnance Survey has now come up with a simple but ingenious solution: every property (building or landholding) in England, Scotland, and Wales now has a 12-digit Unique Property Reference Number (UPRN). All creators of geographical information are now being encouraged by national and local governments to use these numbers, which identify areas on the Ordnance Survey master map, rather than single points.

The Ordnance Survey published its tables of UPRNs as recently as June 2020, but already many organisations are adopting them, and no doubt many of the TaNC projects will be using them to link datasets, because adding the UPRN to the metadata enables records relating to the same property to be identified and linked. For example, you might soon be able to use the UPRN to search for every record relating to your church, whether it be a 19th-century architect’s drawing in the RIBA collection, a funerary helm in the Royal Armouries Museum, a silver chalice in the Victoria and Albert Museum, a Songs of Praise broadcast in the BBC archives, or the histories of the stained glass, ledger stones, effigial monuments, bells, organs, or churchyard wildlife and tombstone inscriptions held in specialist society databases.

The system is not without its flaws: the UPRN lapses and a new one is issued if a field is developed as a housing estate, for example, or a building is demolished, but there are organisations working on that problem, with the aim of adding historic time-depth to the map polygons that underlie UPRNs. Despite any shortcomings, it is likely that archaeologists and the owners of heritage information will be making great use of UPRNs in the years to come to achieve the same kind of data connectivity that we have come to take for granted in online social relations.