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Long lost families reunited: social media campaign uncovers the links between objects across UK museums

Galleries on lockdown connect online during coronavirus pandemic using #CollectionsUnited

Curators at museums and galleries across the UK have taken the first steps towards building a "virtual national collection" by using a new hashtag (#CollectionsUnited) to highlight links between objects, artists and cultural figures. The digital initiative, led by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), aims to bring together different digital collections and catalogues, prompting people to explore new connections during lockdown.

Arts professionals have subsequently taken to social media with gusto. Caroline Campbell, the director of collections and research at the National Gallery in London, tweeted about three early-Renaissance works once owned by the Medici family that are now dispersed in other collections: one at the National Gallery in London, one at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and one at the British Library.

The Fan Museum in Greenwich also joined by sharing pictures of one of its 17th-century fans decorated with birds alongside an almost identical version that is held in the collection of Leeds Museums.

The British Library joined up the dots regarding the Irish physicist and collector Hans Sloane, explaining how his collection was dispersed to various London spaces including the British Museum and the Natural History Museum. They tweeted pictures of two drawings of elephants, both of which were previously in Sloane's collection, with one now housed at the British Museum and one at the British Library.

Hillsborough Castle and Gardens in Northern Ireland, part of the Historic Royal Palaces heritage group, posted a "pair" of paintings: one of the former British prime minister Winston Churchill painting and one of the Irish artist John Lavery painting, each painted by the other. While the image of Churchill in his garden is owned by Hillsborough Castle, the portrait of Lavery hangs at the politicians former country residence in Chartwell, Kent.

“The [five-year Towards a National Collection] project works across the country to unite the UK’s gallery, museum, archives and library collections, whose current physical closure gives the project fresh urgency,” says a statement from the AHRC, which also launched the Boundless Creativity project earlier this month “to map changing patterns of cultural consumption during this time [in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak]”.

Rebecca Bailey, the programme director, says in a statement that the initiative has the “clear potential to dissolve barriers between collections, opening them up to new cross-disciplinary lines of research, and extending public access”. Funding of £18.6m, which will go towards a series of research projects linking higher education institutions and national museums, is provided through the government-financed UK Research and Innovation’s Strategic Priorities Fund.

Seventeen cultural heritage sector bodies, including the Art Fund charity and the Museums Association, have pledged “to work together online as never before to celebrate the connections between us”. Museums Association director Sharon Heal says that “the idea behind #CollectionsUnited is to offer a chance for museums across the UK to showcase their amazing objects and artefacts and for the public to actively interact with them to make unexpected connections.”