Arts and humanities infrastructure enabling knowledge with impact

Botticelli’s Madonna of the Pomegranate during conservation, Ranger's House, The Wernher Collection.

Arts and humanities infrastructures are vital for driving innovation in heritage science, and ensuring the creative industries thrive.

On 12 September, Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) Infrastructure team will officially be two years old. A second birthday, or near enough, seems as good a time as any to pause and reflect.

We are celebrating a little, not only because of how far we have come, but also because of futures now made possible.

But first, a little context.

In the beginning

In 2018 UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) announced its intention to create a roadmap for future investment in research and innovation infrastructure (RII).

AHRC was the only UKRI research council to have no infrastructure programme, no portfolio of capital investments and no clear notion of what our ‘research and innovation infrastructure landscape’ looked like.

By November 2019, UKRI’s infrastructure, landscape analysis and opportunity reports were published at: Creating world-class infrastructure. We were no longer in doubt: arts and humanities research and innovation infrastructures make up 29% of all UKRI infrastructures, and the need for AHRC to support this infrastructure was undeniable.

Our infrastructures encompass:

  • galleries, libraries, archives museums and special collections (GLAMS)
  • large-scale data collections
  • data repositories
  • longitudinal studies
  • experimental studios
  • labs
  • collaboration spaces for areas such as:
    • architecture
    • creative industries
    • design
    • fashion
    • fine art
    • participatory research.

Open to the public

Unusually, for research infrastructures, many of them are open to the public and view public engagement and dissemination of research as business-as-usual. As a former colleague from the Victoria and Albert Museum wryly observed, ‘we’ve been doing impact since 1852.’

Taken as a whole, arts and humanities infrastructure is a national network of facilities, technologies and expertise connecting arts and humanities researchers to each other, to the wider scientific community, and to people, policymakers, business and enterprise.

The heritage economy alone contributes £30bn gross value added (GVA) per annum and, in pre-pandemic times, supported over 400,000 jobs, while the creative industries contributes around £117bn GVA, accounting for almost 6% of the UK’s economy.

And it is research, development and innovation (RD&I), the people who do it as well as the facilities that enable it; that drive this success.

As Professor Christopher Smith recently stated in an article for the Museums Association Journal:

Research facilities…play a vital role developing future talent, enriching the skills base and building a pipeline of talent, from researchers to technicians, curators to scientists and lighting engineers…  and fully deserve our urgent and consistent support.

And then there was light

Researcher uses Leica M205 stereo microscope to examine a dog’s skill, Newcastle University.

Researcher uses Leica M205 stereo microscope to examine a dog’s skill, Newcastle University. Credit: Diana Blumberg

We were therefore delighted when AHRC successfully won a tranche of funding from UKRI’s world class labs expansion programme last summer (see details at £213 million to upgrade the UK’s world-class research infrastructure).

This landmark £25 million investment, part of a wider £300 million investment from government, made it possible for AHRC to launch its first major capital call, the Capability for Collections Fund, or CapCo.

The funding enabled research organisations that hold extraordinary collections to refurbish and upgrade their research and development facilities. This provided them with the tools and technologies they needed to care for and study the objects in their care.

48 grants to 42 institutions

In all, we awarded 48 grants to 42 institutions across the UK, including:

£3 million to the University of Cambridge to establish CHERISH (Cambridge Heritage Science Hub)

A new facility that supports the development of collaborative research in Archaeological and Heritage Science across world-class collections held at the Cambridge University Library, Fitzwilliam Museum, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and elsewhere.

£778,000 to the University of Manchester for cutting-edge equipment

Used to support the development of multidisciplinary research on their Arts Council England Designated collection of some 6.75 million artefacts. These include the Whitworth Art Gallery’s extensive collection of textiles and wallpaper.

£740,000 to upgrade and expand the analytical facilities at Newcastle Material Culture Analytical Suite (NeMCAS)

A partnership between Newcastle University and the Great Northern Museum. Creating in-house capacity for analysis of archaeological objects will establish NeMCAS as an important regional hub for doctoral training and collaborative research, including capability available nowhere else in the north of England.

£94,000 to the University of Portsmouth and the Mary Rose Museum for state-of-the-art microscopy equipment

The equipment will enable detailed analysis and understand of artefacts’ composition and structure. The grant that will ensure the Tudor warship the Mary Rose as well as related artefacts such as boots, cannons and gold coins can be protected and enjoyed by the public for years to come.

£232,000 for new imaging equipment at National Museums Scotland

Equipment includes a scanning electron microscope and reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) kit, with a resolution appropriate for detailed research investigation. This investment supports the museum’s analytical laboratory in its significant national role, as the only facility of its kind located at a museum in Scotland, and as custodian of a century’s old collection of over 12.4 million objects.

Early indications suggest that CapCo may even have opened up a new market for manufacturers of specialist and precision instruments in imaging, spectroscopy and microscopy. From autumn this year, AHRC will host a series of industry-user roundtables to explore opportunities for co-design of new scientific and imaging equipment for analysis and digital capture of historic artefacts and environments.

The start of an exciting journey

So in just two years from a standing start, AHRC now has an infrastructure portfolio of 48 thriving investments. Each transformative in its own way, to begin to match the potential and need of the sectors we support. Looking ahead, there’s hope of further investment for the creative industries and for heritage science.

In June this year, we were allocated £1 million from UKRI’s digital research infrastructure programme, for the first phase of a programme to build a national infrastructure for digital innovation and curation for arts and humanities (iDAH).

Arts and humanities data, encompassing everything from administrative data and social media to 3D computational models of submerged historic environments, is extraordinarily rich and diverse. This richness has the potential to drive innovation in areas of transformative technology from research software engineering to digital twins.

Could we, for example, develop algorithms to recognise unconscious bias in film, TV or advertising?

Could digitised collections of the natural world be used to create a dynamic digital ‘twin-Earth’, charting changes in climate and biodiversity from the planet’s formation to the present day?

Could we then combine it with modern records to model the planet’s future?

iDAH will seek to unlock this vast, untapped potential by establishing a family of interlinked trusted digital repositories that will ensure our data is discoverable, accessible, reproducible and secure.

A compelling case for investment

We believe that the case for investing in arts and humanities infrastructure is now compelling: museums, galleries, libraries, archives and collections are keepers of the human record. They document and preserve our endeavours, successes, hopes and fears, as expressed in word, image, and artefact.

As physical spaces staffed with exceptionally skilled professionals, they also function as observatories and laboratories, inviting contemplation and collaboration, dissolving disciplinary siloes and critically providing the evidence we need to ‘build forward better’.

Proper investment in our infrastructures, and in the sophisticated technologies they need, will enable better science, support innovation and provide arts and humanities researchers with the resource and capacity to address, at pace and scale, the urgent questions of our time. AHRC looks forward to helping to build that future.

Top image:  Botticelli’s Madonna of the Pomegranate during conservation, Ranger's House, The Wernher Collection. Credit: Christopher Ison

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