Dept of History of Art | Research | Research projects | Mapping Museums: The history and geography of the UK independent sector 1960-2020
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Mapping Museums: The history and geography of the UK independent sector 1960-2020

‘Mapping Museums’ is an inter-disciplinary project that will map and analyse the emergence, character, and development of the UK independent museums sector from 1960-2020.

Between 1970 and 1989, approximately 1300 new museums opened in the UK. The vast majority of these new venues were independent, were founded by community and special interest groups, and individual collectors, and they differed from public museums to such an extent that that they were judged to have 'revolutionized' the sector. There are now some 1600 independent museums in the UK, but despite the extraordinary boom in their numbers we know very little about them. Regional and national funding bodies and museums associations collect data on independent museums, but it is not cross referenced and is limited to their specific remits and areas of interest. They do not keep records on when museums opened and if they close, and the information that is available cannot be mapped or easily searched.

In the first phase of the project, the research team will collate and supplement existing information to establish a dataset of all UK museums from 1960-2020 and, in turn, build a database that is searchable according to factors including location, date of foundation, subject matter, size, type of museums, and combinations of these attributes. This information will be mapped visually and will be freely available in open source format on a project website to be hosted by the Bishopsgate Institute. In the second phase of the research we will use the database to identify patterns in the emergence, development and closure of independent museums and then seek to account for those trends (or anomalies) through historical and interview-based research.

The research will enable us to establish long-term trends in the development of independent museums: when exactly museums opened, if there was a link between where they opened and their subject matter, or between date and subject matter, if there are areas where few museums opened or survived, and if these patterns correlate to other broader cultural or social factors. It will produce the first evidence-based history of the UK museum boom, show how the sector has changed, and provide an insight into the grass roots concerns at a regional and national level. As such, it will contribute to our scholarly understanding of British culture, be useful for policy makers and arts funders, and of interest to the general public.

The research will also address the computational challenge of defining a conceptual model that reflects the knowledge of museum studies experts and the diverse data collected about the museums themselves; and to develop a database and visualisations that are easily able to be evolved and extended as new data is gathered, new research insights are made, and the researchers' understanding of the domain and their data analysis requirements change.

The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and is led by Dr Fiona Candlin, Reader in Museum Studies (Principal investigator), and by Alex Poulavassillis, Professor of Computer Science (Co-investigator).