Inside a large open book featuring a handwritten catalogue.

Research project

The Sloane Lab

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

Key project information

Duration

2021–2024

Contact details

Email: bmresearch@britishmuseum.org

Partners

Listed in 'Acknowledgements'

Supported by

Towards a National Collection – AHRC

Grant number

AH/W003457/1

How can we use digital tools to bring together different digital collections so they can be made more accessible to wider audiences?

All museums, libraries and galleries face huge challenges in trying to join up their digital collections. This project, The Sloane Lab: looking back to build future shared collections, aims to bring together the substantial and unique collection of 18th-century physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane (1660−1753). Housed across London in the Natural History Museum, the British Library and the British Museum, these objects have been catalogued in different ways and are difficult to use as a complete collection.

As part of the Towards a National Collection programme, this project will develop and test a new digital platform that will bring together this material and make it freely available online. The platform will allow researchers, curators and the public to explore digital records about Sloane's collection across the three organisations.

About the project

During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Sir Hans Sloane formed a large and unique collection of plants, animals, books, manuscripts, coins and artefacts. Funded partly from the profits of slavery as well as through his work as a physician, this material became one of the founding collections of the British Museum following his death in 1753. However, no single accessible catalogue of this collection exists online today.

This project will address the challenges of bringing together digital records of material across Sloane's collection in different institutions, which includes digitised versions of the original handwritten catalogues. It will build and test new user-friendly digital tools to create the Sloane Lab, a digital platform that links this material together for the first time.

Through collaborative work with people from different communities and with varying knowledge of Sloane's collection, the project will identify the diverse questions that the Sloane Lab will be built to answer. It will also engage with other organisations to understand their needs and challenges in linking collections. These technologies can be shared with and applied to other digital collections.

This research will contribute to the eventual creation of a shared national digital collection across different institutions in the UK.

Aims

The project will:

  • Devise automated ways to mend the broken links between Sir Hans Sloane’s founding collection across the British Museum, Natural History Museum and the British Library. 
  • Create the Sloane Lab, a programme of digital tools and applications to support research, exploration, the interlinking of digital records and creative engagement with the digital national collection. 
  • Facilitate richer, more critical understandings of the origins and development of museum collections to explore the often-hidden processes of colonialism, empire and slavery and how they have shaped collections and their classifications. 
  • Evaluate the role of artificial intelligence (AI), digital humanities, data science and historical collection records in the infrastructure of a future national shared digital collection.
  • Undertake ongoing, participatory research with diverse audiences, project partners and the wider heritage sector that accommodates a range of perspectives and voices to broaden the general public's interaction with the national collection.
  • Examine the landscape of the UK's national collections and how to offer better experiences of access for online users. 
  • Work with museums and libraries to make recommendations about future projects and initiatives to bring digital collections together.

Meet the team

Julianne Nyhan

Julianne Nyhan

Principal Investigator
TU Darmstadt and Information Studies UCL

Andrew Flinn.

Andrew Flinn

Deputy Principal Investigator
Information Studies UCL

J D Hill.

JD Hill

Co-Investigator
Directorate
British Museum

Sushma Jansari.

Sushma Jansari

Co-Investigator
Department of Asia
British Museum

Maria Bojanowska.

Maria Bojanowska

Co-Investigator
Learning and National Partnerships
British Museum

Alicia Hughes.

Alicia Hughes

Researcher
Directorate
British Museum

Project team

Supporter

Supporter

Supported by

AHRC logo