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Collections Trust to explore sharing data

Rebecca Atkinson, Collections Trust to investigate shared collections data services, Museums Association, 17 July 2020

Trust aims to develop framework and provisional model by the autumn.

The Collections Trust has been awarded an undisclosed sum of money to investigate how the UK’s museums might consolidate and share their collections data with each other and the wider public.

The funding was announced last week by the Open Data Institute, which works with companies and governments to build an open, trustworthy data ecosystem. It has awarded grants to seven projects in total that all explore ways to provide access to data in trustworthy ways.

Kevin Gosling, the chief executive of Collections Trust, says that the UK is one of the only European countries that hasn’t developed a central system for museums to connect the digital records of objects and collections that are held in separate databases.

“As museums face the coming months and years of recovery, we urgently need to rethink the way we all work with the information that gives our objects meaning and underpins almost every museum activity,” he says.

“The public interest case for publishing and exploiting cultural data has also grown and diversified. The current Black Lives Matter movement, for example, is a sharp reminder that the museum sector’s sincere desire to engage transparently and openly about colonial-era collections is not matched by its technical capacity to do so.”

The Covid-19 lockdown has heightened the issue, with an estimated 40% of staff and volunteers unable to access collections databases during the early weeks of working from home. A Collections Trust survey found internal IT infrastructures, as well as only partially-computerised collections data were part of the problem.

Improving the transparency and accessibility of online collections was one of the recommendations made in the Museums Association’s 2018 Empowering Collections report, which states: “Sector bodies should support the creation and maintenance of an online tool that enables museums to share information about their collections and enables widespread public engagement with collections via third-party applications.”

The Collections Trust says the next step is to hold a consultation and reach consensus in the sector about how museums might share their collections data with each other and with users.

It aims to publish a provisional model and framework that will define the necessary technical infrastructure and organisational structure by the autumn. It will then launch an engagement process designed to build consensus about the framework across the sector, with the aim of inspiring policy changes at a governmental and sectoral level.

“The Open Data Institute’s ability to get people around a table and experience will be hugely helpful to this process, which we hope will be of use to everyone working on this decades-old issue,” Gosling says. “It’s now an urgent problem and we can’t put it off any longer.”