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Past Paths: Bringing Tyne and Wear's museums to life on the web


An innovative £122k project will use big data to enrich the experience of exploring Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums’ online collections.

Past Paths, which also involves  Newcastle University's Culture Lab and Microsoft Research, will develop a web platform and novel search engine encouraging people to search and discover museum objects. It will creatively connect objects to rich web content and inspire new public explorations of online collections.

It will transform searching online object catalogues into a playful museum experience that connects object records to diverse online content (text, images, multimedia) from across the web and social media. Engaging, content-rich experiences will be developed that place museum objects at their core.

The search model for museum collections is traditionally designed for research audiences who know what they are looking for. This project will design for the casual browser and deliver content that provokes unexpected discovery.

Another benefit of this development will be the transformation of a static data collection into a living, evolving digital archive. User-centered systems will be developed to capture audience interaction with collections. The object record will expand to incorporate associated web content that audience search has deemed relevant and engaging. The search engine will refine its understanding of what web content and search results are most likely to encourage a user journey through museum collections. 

Past Paths was one of 12 schemes selected for funding through the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, which supports collaboration between organisations with arts projects, technology providers and researchers. The fund is a The Fund is a three way partnership between Arts Council England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and innovation charity Nesta.

Professor Pete Wright, from Newcastle University's Culture Lab said: “Past Paths is a great opportunity to push forward our research agenda on enhancing public experience of digital archives through working with two great organisations.

“Past Paths is part of a broader research agenda we are pursuing through the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded Creative Exchange Project. The vision is to open up cultural archives to members of the public in meaningful ways to create a Digital Public Space, in which citizens can participate in and contribute to cultural heritage.”

Iain Watson, Director of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, said: “Working with big data is one of the new and exciting opportunities of the 21st century. It involves data sets so large and complex that they can’t be managed using conventional digital technologies.

“Past Paths is an innovative project on so many levels.  It provides us with wonderful opportunities for developing audience engagement whilst enriching data about our collections.  We are working with world-class partners who are experts in their fields and we are proud to be one of the 12 on the list of amazing projects across the UK that have been awarded funding through the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts.”

Professor Richard Harper, Microsoft Research said: “Search engine technologies only make available what has been designed for the web. So what about content beyond the web - the wide landscape of knowledge in cultural institutions such as museums that developed their knowledge stores before HTML and browsers were invented?

“And what about those kinds of users who are not seeking information in the way that search engine designers have assumed - who are instead seeking to wander into areas that they have never explored?

“Past Paths is a project that will help these users and help reimagine what the web might be and how people engage with content to be found on it.”

The project idea was developed in response to an open call for proposals that use digital technology to build new business models and enhance audience reach for cultural organisations.

Each project's findings, research and progress will be charted on Native, the Fund's learning website, enabling other arts and cultural organisations to learn from the work the Fund is supporting.

Pictured: Exhibits at the Great North Museum: Hancock

published on: 30 April 2014