Unpath'd Waters: Marine and Maritime Collections in the UK

Principal Investigator: Mr Barney Sloane, Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England (Historic England/English Heritage)

Port bow view of the passenger liner Malta (1865) wrecked off the rocks in the bay on the north-east side of Kendijack Castle.

Project partners: Historic Environment Scotland, MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology), National Maritime Museum, the Universities of Bangor, Bradford, Portsmouth, St Andrews, Southampton, Ulster, York, Glasgow School of Art, National Oceanography Centre, Mary Rose Trust, Maritime Archaeology Trust, Nautical Archaeology Society, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, Wessex Archaeology, Welsh Government Historic Environment Service, Department for Communities Northern Ireland, Lloyd's Register Foundation, Manx National Heritage, Marine Management Organisation, and Protected Wreck Association.

The UK's marine heritage is extraordinarily rich. Shipwrecks date from the Bronze Age to the World Wars, bearing testimony to Britain as an island nation, and a destination for trade and migration. Aircraft losses, inundated monuments, ports and seaside resorts all tell personal stories of struggles and successes. Before the Bronze Age, a great deal of what is now the North Sea floor was forest, hill and plains, peopled by prehistoric communities.

This heritage, covering 23,000 years, is represented by collections of charts, documents, images, film, oral histories, sonar surveys, seismic data, bathymetry, archaeological investigations, artefacts, objects and artworks. But they are often dispersed, unconnected and inaccessible. This matters because the story of our seas is of huge interest to the UK public, and because our exploitation of our seas for food, leisure, trade and energy is intensifying. If we are to reveal new stories and manage our past effectively and in sustainable ways, we need to join up these collections and unlock their potential.

An artist’s impression of diving operations on the wreck of the Mary Rose.

UNPATH aims to reshape the future of UK marine heritage, making records accessible for the first time across all four UK nations and opening them to the world. It will devise new ways of searching across collections, visualising underwater landscapes, and identifying wrecks and artefacts from them. UNPATH will also deliver tools to protect our most significant heritage, while inviting the public to co-design ways of exploring the archives in order to uncover previously untold stories and new questions to guide future research.


Barney Sloane, Historic England’s Principal Investigator for ‘Unpath’d Waters: Marine and Maritime Collections in the UK’ said: “As an island nation, our maritime heritage is of fundamental importance to who we are. I am delighted to be leading one of the five Discovery Projects known as Unpath’d Waters. It will transform the way in which researchers and the public can access the huge variety of collections held in museums, universities, heritage institutions, commercial organisations and indeed by the public. The project will bring together expertise in digital humanities, computer science and marine heritage and will unleash the massive research potential of our shared maritime past.”

Towards a National Collection

Towards a National Collection logo

£14.5m awarded to transform online exploration of UK’s culture and heritage collections through harnessing innovative AI The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has awarded £14.5m to the research and development of emerging technologies, including machine learning and citizen-led archiving, in order to connect the UK’s cultural artefacts and historical archives in new and transformative ways.

The announcement today of the five major projects forming the largest investment of Towards a National Collection, a five-year research programme, reveals the first insights into how thousands of disparate collections could be explored by public audiences and academic researchers in the future.

The five ‘Discovery Projects’ will harness the potential of new technology to dissolve barriers between collections - opening up public access and facilitating research across a range of sources and stories held in different physical locations. One of the central aims is to empower and diversify audiences by involving them in the research and creating new ways for them to access and interact with collections. In addition to innovative online access, the projects will generate artist commissions, community fellowships, computer simulations, and travelling exhibitions. The investigation is the largest of its kind to be undertaken to date, anywhere in the world. It extends across the UK, involving 15 universities and 63 heritage collections and institutions of different scales, with over 120 individual researchers and collaborators.

Together, the Discovery Projects represent a vital step in the UK’s ambition to maintain leadership in cross-disciplinary research, both between different humanities disciplines and between the humanities and other fields. Towards a National Collection will set a global standard for other countries building their own collections, enhancing collaboration between the UK’s renowned heritage and national collections worldwide.

For more information, or to connect with Towards a National Collection programme or project spokespeople, please visit: www.nationalcollection.org.uk

Image credit

Top image: Port bow view of the passenger liner Malta (1865) wrecked off the rocks in the bay on the north-east side of Kendijack Castle. P51147. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Gibson's of Scilly Shipwreck Collection.

An artist’s impression of diving operations on the wreck of the Mary Rose.MR87.5011TD Courtesy Jon Adams © Mary Rose Trust.