An open route map for the museum sector

With the support of the Open Data Institute, Collections Trust is working with the Cisco-backed Preservation to Presentation initiative (P2P) to explore how we might stimulate digital and data leadership across the UK museum sector. P2P’s Richard Leeming explains why.

As well as the immediate threats posed by lockdown, UK museums face some big strategic challenges over the coming years. The Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, has given new urgency to a longstanding debate around decolonising collections: being open about the provenance of items acquired during the UK’s colonial past, and challenging the way they have been catalogued and interpreted by generations of white curators.

While individual institutions have made promising starts, others statements of intent, the sector will not make meaningful progress on this until it gets to grips with the detailed data-sharing needed. To illustrate this, in November 2019, when Jesus College Cambridge agreed to return a Benin bronze to Nigeria, the only way the Guardian could find out who else was holding similar bronzes was by asking its readers.

This is just part of a wider problem that Collections Trust and P2P are exploring in a project called Get It Together: Realising the Value of Museum Collections Data, supported by the Open Data Institute’s Data Access Stimulus Fund.

Real change requires data leadership

For structural reasons the UK’s cultural sector has been unable to develop the interoperable digital and data infrastructure needed to enable its data to be properly used and exploited at scale. There are technical issues – data is written to different technical standards, using different schemas and are currently stored in incompatible systems – but those problems are less of a barrier than they used to be. Our problem is not primarily technical, but one of sector leadership and commitment to data-sharing over the long term.

The structural constraints preventing the sector properly exploiting digital technologies are many and various. The dynamics of network effects, for example, which suggest that platforms and products get better as they get bigger, do not currently help a sector made up of thousands of unconnected institutions, with even the most prestigious tiny by comparison with the Internet giants. The few shared delivery structures that do exist are poorly funded; business models and income streams are not structured in a way that motivates collaboration and those that do are small, project-based and often without any lasting legacy. Further, the sector prioritises the use of digital to create discrete audience-focussed experiences which are rarely re-usable and therefore do not benefit from economies of scale.

The limited impact of UK cultural heritage in a digital world is systemic; Covid-19 has just accelerated the need to transform the way it is digitised and shared. As cultural institutions seek to reinvent themselves to cope with the requirements of social distancing, they need to find ways to reach all the different audiences they serve.

All of this results in a sector that punches below its weight when it comes to developing digital products and services. It is impossible for human researchers or AI tools to search across datasets, or to create new digital products and services that involve presenting cultural treasures from more than one museum. While platforms like Amazon Marketplace or Etsy enable users to browse items from thousands of different retail outlets, if someone wants to explore a connection between an item held by the Science Museum and another at, say, Newcastle’s Discovery Museum, they need to browse both institutions’ websites. It is unlikely that any links between them will be flagged on either site.

Learning from other sectors

Anyone with a smartphone will know how easy it is to plan a journey using any number of transport apps. It has not always been that simple, but thanks to transport authorities like TfL opening up their data, an essential task has been simplified. Local authorities, from London to New York, to Jakarta are empowering their citizens by opening up their data. If these benefits are to be realised in the cultural sector it is essential that institutions co-operate to develop the sort of shared digital infrastructure, data management and publishing tools, as well as the governance and business and revenue models, that will be necessary. This is vital if museums are to stay relevant in a digital world and to enable them to rethink how value is created, assessed and exploited online.

Our Get It Together project is exploring how we can best stimulate digital and data leadership across the sector. With Collections Trust’s experience of past data-sharing initiatives, and P2P’s work on designing end-to-end solutions which address some the key challenges, we are under no illusions about the complexity of the task. We are looking at the issue through the following lenses:

  • Legitimacy
  • Governance
  • Revenue models and financial sources
  • Infrastructure

Given the breadth of the cultural heritage sector, and its interrelationship with others such as education, tourism and the wider creative economy, it is likely that more than one solution will be needed. As well as looking at past and present initiatives within our sector, it is also vital that we look outside it too, so we are open to conversations with anyone with good ideas.