Sustainable Development Goals


Democratising heritage – Sir Hans Sloane collections made accessible online

An ambitious project to digitise artefacts collected by Sir Hans Sloane in the 1700s held in museums across the UK, is helping to democratise and decolonise the UK’s culture and heritage collections.

Photograph of a portrait painting in the collection.

17 August 2022

The artefacts gathered by physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane in the 1700s form the basis of collections at the British Museum, Natural History Museum and British Library. Together with other disparate collections around the UK, they tell untold stories of the UK’s history and colonial legacies.

“Exploration of the UK’s historic Hans Sloane collections is currently hampered by the physical distance that separates them and the disciplinary silos that exist in universities and public collections,” explains Professor Julianne Nyhan (UCL Information Studies), Director of the Sloane Lab and lead researcher on the UCL arm of the programme.

Sloane’s collections range from coins to manuscripts and stuffed animals. Putting the collections in context for the 21st century will present new opportunities for people to search, explore and engage critically with the UK’s cultural heritage online.

“We are digitising the objects in Sir Hans Sloane’s collections to provide better access for anyone interested in exploring these important cultural artefacts,” she explains. “We aim to enrich debates around the contextualised history of the objects and museums.”

The UCL team will be working with heritage organisations across the UK including the British Museum, National Museums of Scotland and the British Library, and other groups such as the Community Archives and Heritage Group, Down County Museum and Oxford University Herbaria.

“The Sloane Lab will enrich debate on issues such as the contested nature of museum collections,” explains Professor Nyhan. “Digital tools provide opportunities to critically explore overlooked or ignored processes, like colonialism, slavery and loss and destruction, which have shaped the UK’s national collections until now.”

To provide more intuitive and relevant ways for academics and the public to access collections and to make connections between different artifacts, the team will use artificial intelligence tools. And more than 300 people will be involved in the design and validation of the Sloane Lab resources, ensuring the online platform is as simple as possible to use.

“We aim to enrich debate on issues such as the contested nature of museum collections.”

The UCL team is also running an open competition to find ‘Community Fellows’ who will lead their own projects, ranging from curating a new digital exhibition to developing computer simulations.

The Sloane Lab: Looking back to Build Future Shared Collections project is one of five ‘discovery projects’ funded by the Arts and Humanities Council that will make huge strides towards developing a National Collection for the UK.

Image Credit: The Historical Collections Room containing the Sloane Herbarium, copyright The Natural History Museum, London