Collections Trust asks DCMS to futureproof the way museums share their collections online

This is our response to the current #CultureisDigital consultation on cultural infrastructure by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. You can rate it, comment on it, or add your own ideas to the debate at the DCMS consultation platform.

There are around 1,700 museums and galleries in the UK. Most are small, but almost all use computer-based systems to record the information that gives their objects meaning, based on common standards that – over many decades – have anticipated the day when all this information could be brought together and really put to work.

Digitised versions of collection highlights, curated into engaging online experiences, attract the limelight, but the drier information is important too. Indeed, effective data-sharing between museums will be the key to addressing the biggest challenge facing the sector over the coming century: developing the collections of individual museums sustainably through better coordination across regions and subject specialisms.

Through #CultureisDigital DCMS wants to find out how government can help cultural organisations and technology firms work together more effectively. As an essential step towards the Cultural White Paper’s vision of seamless access to digitised cultural heritage, there is one specific action that government – and only government – can take to help museums and galleries. It will probably be the most modest ask of the current consultation, but also one of the most strategic. If taken, this simple action will underpin fruitful collaboration between museums, between museums and other collection-holding cultural organisations, and between museums and the tech sector, for many decades to come.

On behalf of museums large and small, Collections Trust asks DCMS to make programme funding available to one of the government-sponsored national bodies to take responsibility for the infrastructure needed to bring together collections information from UK museums and make it available for re-use.

This sounds complicated and expensive, but stripped to a sustainable minimum, it isn’t. The core infrastructure boils down to:

  • a data aggregator: an online ‘database of databases’ that brings together information from different museums (working with the suppliers of collections management systems to make it simple for any museum to share its data);
  • an agreed system of persistent identifiers based on a national domain name that will never change, so that millions of digital object records do not turn into millions of broken links;
  • agreed mapping between existing data standards: so that data structured the way museums do things can be brought together and used along with data from other cultural organisations such as archives, libraries or built-heritage bodies;
  • a web-based front-end that lets users browse and search as precisely as the data allows, and save the resulting records into curated online collections that (subject to rights set by the contributing museums) can be reused in other websites and apps; it would be a tool rather than an online destination in its own right;
  • an API (application programing interface): the developer tool that makes it possible for websites and apps to take and reuse data from the aggregator;
  • technical support to keep all of the above running smoothly and upgraded as needed.

A proof of concept already exists in this country and – full disclosure – Collections Trust set it up. CultureGrid brings together some three million records from over a hundred different collections. The front-end (www.culturegrid.org.uk) is a bit basic and long in the tooth, but the data aggregator behind the scenes does everything it needs to, while the API is right now ‘revealing the hidden collections’ of Scottish university museums (www.revealing.umis.ac.uk) and allowing users to take an innovative dive into Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (www.collectionsdivetwmuseums.org.uk).

But CultureGrid is not sustainable as it is. Its project funding ended years ago, and Collections Trust, a small charity, is not the right body to be responsible for our national aggregator for museums. What the sector needs is a commitment from government that one of its sponsored national bodies will be programme-funded to take over, develop and maintain the modest infrastructure described above. Museums, collections management software companies, web and app developers, and funders will do the rest – project by project – once they can be sure the infrastructure they need will be there beyond the next funding round.