Mapping the arts and humanities

An arrangement of colourful pins linked together with string on a pale blue background suggesting a network of connections.

A new project is mapping the UK’s arts and humanities infrastructure for the first time; how will it help to strengthen the UK’s global standing in the sector?

The ‘Mapping the Arts and Humanities’ project, which launched earlier this year, will produce an interactive map to allow users to find and connect with research activity more easily, and boost visibility for research centres and networks across the country.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and Research England, this is the first time a full picture of the arts and humanities infrastructure across the UK will be built.

It is easy to assume the thriving research and innovation ecosystem we engage in today was always so.

Finding and supporting the best ideas

Finding, supporting, and scaling the best ideas (indeed knowing when to get out of the way of powerful ideas that can thrive on their own) so that these ideas can flourish in the future is more an art form, and less an output of a cookie-cutter equation with a few variables plugged in to punch out the final shape.

Without a guide to our past to know where we have come from, this art form becomes exponentially more difficult.

I would argue that without a knowledge of our past, innovation itself is left story-less, blind to the possibilities of the future. Ultimately, it is only the ideas that capture our imagination that drive us forward.

Long-term recommendations

In the mid-1990s, the bipartisan Dearing Inquiry Report set forth long-term recommendations on the purpose, size, shape, structure and funding of higher education.

The report endorsed a view of higher education as a private good, driven by fees and market regulation, rather than a social good.

In balance, the report also promoted a culture of life-long learning as a partnership between students, government and society. The establishment of AHRC was proposed as an important route to public funding of research.

Bold ambitions

As the policy landscape has evolved, so the arts and humanities research landscape has adapted and grown with it, responding to new opportunities and priorities and all the while growing our understanding of the world and what it means to be human.

AHRC’s ambitions are bigger and bolder than they have ever been. It is our view that we can strengthen brilliant arts and humanities research by shoring up and significantly enhancing the vital infrastructure that supports it to thrive.

Infrastructure programmes like research infrastructure for conservation and heritage science, convergent screen technologies and performance in realtime and infrastructure for digital innovation and curation in arts and humanities seek to address, at scale, fragmentation, silos and inefficiencies caused by ageing, suboptimal facilities.

They provide access and expertise to new and innovative technologies, and build networks to enable the collaborative approaches that are so critical to addressing contemporary challenges.

They also help realise immediate tangible benefits for cultural institutions, ensuring, for example, that our cultural heritage collections are cared-for, accessible and actively contributing to economic recovery and growth through the tourism and experience economy.

Pace of innovation

However, the pace of innovation necessitates a mapping, a guide, to ensure policy and strategic investments reflect ground realities.

Today the UK’s global standing in arts and humanities research is underpinned by a multifaceted network or ‘infrastructure’ of centres, groups and institutes that genuinely bring researchers together, explore new territory, and make novel connections across fields, sectors and communities.

This infrastructure is a vital driver of the sort of interdisciplinary thinking required in addressing today’s biggest challenges. And it provides fertile ground for the sort of discovery research that will lead us to the next big idea.

But it is often invisible, which means that it is hard for researchers to find one another, even harder for collaborators and policy makers to connect with research activity, and that we as funders are missing potential opportunities to support and nurture excellence.

Mapping the landscape for arts and humanities research today gives us the clearest indication of where we go next.

Find out about the Mapping the Arts and Humanities project.

Top image:  Credit: anilakkus, E+ via Getty Images

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