Digital Innovation in Heritage Collections

My research seeks to agitate current approaches within the heritage sector in collections and object management. My practice has been to look at blockchain, a distributed ledger technology, to understand its potential use in collections management.

Curatorial Process

The process of curation could be said to follow a cyclical journey and it is useful to consider the many stages involved in an objects life span (digital or physical) relating to collections management. It is a process of decision making, of weighing up resources needed for storage against object condition and potential deterioration. It brings together and combines data from all aspects of life – that of monetary value, physicality, materiality, legal and moral frameworks, historical and intellectual contextualisation, storytelling and romantic notions of the nature of time and existence.

Archives, museums and galleries hold vast bodies of information that can be simultaneously experienced as microscopically personal while at the same time immensely universal on a global scale. They illustrate a dance of life and death that no human remains unconnected from. Historic collections are the vaults of human existence, maintained by the few, for the many.

The complex nature of data generation, interpretation and utilisation within the heritage sector is complicated further through natural occurrences of translation, transformation and migration in the creation of publications, duplicates and surrogates. This can muddy the waters on ownership, rights for use and value, and yet is an impossible and unavoidable truth in the creation and management of object collections.

Digital Curation and Innovation

Add to this, the ever-shifting properties of the digital object operating in a simulated reality. A constantly moving soup of language and functions, which perform according to the commercial programming and community-supported software of the day.

As computing and communication technology has developed, understandably, so have the digital systems employed within collections management. However, from experience, I have seen slow uptake to innovate data management systems within heritage organisations. As identified in the International Journal of Digital Curation in 2009, data managers are a ‘broad cohort’ sometimes in those positions by accident rather than by design. 

Certainly, it is no disrespect to say that many collections managers are focused on the care of their collections and day to day operations and it is not within their professional requirement to comment on digital innovation. Small to medium-sized organisations will often lack in-house IT support, and will be restricted by limited funds and minimal incomes for development.

I have observed the tendency towards operational separation of teams working within the traditional heritage institute. Collections management teams operate databases and programmes in separation to those working front of house, staff responsible for online engagement, and marketing and communications teams. Data does not flow throughout the organisation, it is compartmentalised, only for interpretation and commentary by the appropriate team.

What if collections data could sit safely in a location accessible to all and for the cross-pollination of innovative tasks to improve the whole organisation’s efficiency, effectiveness and accessibility?

Blockchain Through the Lens of Curation

In 2019 the National Archives, the University of Surrey and the Open Data Institute announced ARCHANGEL, a prototype blockchain system using artificial intelligence technologies to protect the authenticity of an archived digital object.

Diving into the practical implications of blockchain for collections, the ARCHANGEL project trails a combination of content hashing with distributed ledger technology to create a de-centralised trust model. In simplified terms, a unique identifier is created to give proof to a digital object of its file format or content. This is recorded in such a way as to maintain the provenance and integrity of a document in an environment where complicated calculations are shared and supported by a network of participants within a mixture of permissioned actions and pre-approved statements of trust.

Potentially the heritage sector could benefit from the use of distributed ledgers due to the already pre-existing network of trust existent between institutions and through schemes such as accreditation which standardise minimum and best practice in collections management. This would pave the way for national and global collections, where databases operate within one decentralised global virtual arena for collections management.

A Design Led Approach

In 2016 Victoria Lemieux writing for The University of British Columbia acknowledged that “More interaction between the archival/records management and the blockchain communities would promote greater awareness.” This is due to there being little understanding of archival science within the blockchain community.

Essentially, a design led process as opposed to evidence led, helps to develop according to the needs of the user and can be a forward-thinking practice as opposed to repeating what has gone before. Exploring the potential for data created through collections management would help to drive innovation. 2020 has driven location independence and digital communication not just in terms of business and economy, but in every social sense. We were always heading in this direction, but global narratives have accelerated this forwards in unforeseen ways.

Therefore digital innovation within the heritage sector can no longer be ignored and will require new ways of thinking, new conversations and a total re-evaluation of the traditional structures and roles within the heritage institute.


In one sense I believe it is hard to influence change and develop digital innovation until a point of mutual comfort and a culture of understanding is reached. If decentralised ledgers were to be used, participants would be needed to create the network. This would mean sign up from multiple heritage institutions, willing to work together in support of a global collection. Even without technological equality, relationships like trust, take time to build and maintain.

It is easy to imagine the benefit from a global virtual arena for object and digital collections. Especially in merging the use of data between collections managers, engagement teams and users online through various platforms. Both for the efficiency and collaboration of teams within the organisation, but for the global audiences to whom our historic collections belong.

Trust and good faith would come from the numbers of heritage and cultural institutions involved, with the payoff for participation by smaller institutes, being access to technology and involvement in the distributed ledger and decentralised architecture.

My next steps are to discuss the factors inherent to blockchain and test the water for these technologies with heritage specialists working in digital innovation and collections management.

I wish to tease out the potential for checksum/hashing, automated deep neural networks for reading visual content and distributed ledgers, to see what the climate is for change and innovation on a local scale.