Uncovering the UK’s hidden arts and humanities research infrastructure

University of London pro vice chancellor Jo Fox has been mapping our little-discussed national arts and humanities research infrastructure

Jo Fox is the Pro Vice Chancellor (Research and Engagement) and Dean, School of Advanced Study, at the University of London.

What research infrastructure do we need? Where should we build it? What do we even mean by research infrastructure?

These questions have been at the heart of recent reports by Jisc, UKRI, and The Royal Society, among others, and the Nurse Review of the research, development and innovation (RDI) organisational landscape.

And this term has seen the long-awaited Government response to the Nurse Review, and the beginnings of a national plan for RDI infrastructure.

Arts and humanities infrastructure

It is vital the national plan include all disciplines to properly support the UK’s research base, which is increasingly (and rightly) interdisciplinary and interconnected, moving beyond the traditional STEM-led approach to research infrastructure and towards a fuller understanding of the structures that support discoveries across all areas.

For the arts and humanities, research infrastructure means so much more than libraries, archives, and datasets. It includes creative and maker-spaces, digital humanities labs, and performance spaces and studios.

But it is also characterised by something less tangible: innovation and new findings in the arts and humanities are often driven by networks, exchange, and mechanisms that allow for collaboration and coproduction.

This much was recognised in a 2018 workshop on research infrastructure hosted by the British Academy that emphasised the importance of the “structures that allow people to share knowledge and expertise”, such as learned societies, associations, centres, institutes and networks. “It is through these infrastructures”, the workshop participants concluded, “that Arts and Humanities Researchers can influence research culture and strengthen the nexus between research and policy.”

These forms of infrastructure frequently remain invisible, undiscoverable, and unconnected. As such, they do not fully benefit the communities they exist to serve: the public, policy-makers, cross-sector organisations, and indeed researchers themselves.


Mapping the Arts and Humanities is an interactive map of arts and humanities institutes, centres, networks and facilities, launched last month. Featuring over 3,000 pieces of infrastructure that support arts and humanities research, the map makes it easier for users to discover and connect with research activity across the UK and know what is happening in their region and fields. The map has started with the hidden infrastructures of collaboration: but will move on in its next phase to map libraries, archives, museums and virtual resources.

The project has become so much more than the map itself.

It has become a portal through which we can evaluate the health of the arts and humanities research landscape, and it has raised wider questions about how we optimise support for research across the UK.

Firstly, there is the perennial question of definition. Are current definitions satisfactory in representing the full disciplinary range and practice of research? There is a strong argument for a more expansive understanding of research infrastructure that combines physical and virtual facilities, resources and services with collaborative structures to better represent the combined foundations for research activity across the UK.

The map reveals for the first time the scope, scale and diversity of the arts and humanities’ hidden infrastructure that does so much heavy lifting in supporting researchers on the ground. It is telling just how much of that critical work is supported directly through QR allocations, underscoring the importance of this funding stream for the creation of new knowledge, cross-sector working, interdisciplinary and public engagement and the many diverse, but unseen and unrecorded, benefits and outcomes it brings.

I have also been struck by the interdisciplinary depth of much arts and humanities research infrastructure and the interconnectedness of its research relationships and structures with STEM and social science. This is especially true in terms of the digital humanities, heritage, medical and health research, and on climate. This productive entanglement lends force to the argument that to damage the arts and humanities research base is ultimately to damage the whole. Sometimes unhelpful rhetoric that pits discipline against discipline does not recognise the way in which substantial numbers of researchers now work, nor the interdisciplinary process that underpins many new discoveries. I suspect that demand for the new UKRI Cross-Council funding programmes will replicate this trend.

Connection is not just about interdisciplinarity, however: it is also about locality. Understanding what is and what is not available to support researchers regionally is critical to our ability to take a place-based connected approach to infrastructure, as recommended by the March 2023 Jisc Report. Funders, and those creating the national RDI plan, will need to take critical decisions about where new infrastructure investment is best placed, where it is needed, and what form it should take. Those decisions, quite obviously, should be informed by reliable understanding of what already exists: and that isn’t always that clear.

The bigger challenge

This is not simply a challenge for the arts and humanities: it stretches right across HE and other sectors. With the squeeze on funding, especially in the public sectors, there are significant opportunities for connecting commercial and public needs, joining existing infrastructures in new ways, and creating new ones collaboratively. In the arts and humanities, the GLAM sector represents an obvious starting point, especially for local, smaller institutions that possess untapped (and often unsupported) research expertise, services and facilities.

Knowing what exists also enables a more strategic approach to regional and national collaboration and sharing, and a reconsideration of the funding models required to incentivise greater consolidation of research infrastructures and assets. It may well be that current models prove unsustainable, and joining forces now – to provide better support for researchers, more efficient sharing of costs and facilities, and developing critical mass in emerging fields – might help to preserve the arts and humanities research landscape for the benefit of the many, rather than the few.

The launch of the map is timely.

The arts and humanities are on the cusp of quite radical transformation. Our agendas and approaches are changing; student demands are shifting; and the intervention of AI will demand a new approach to being human (or understanding exactly what that is). What infrastructure will we need to support that transition? What will be the balance of physical and virtual infrastructure? And how do we build it so that it is more agile and can move with what will be fast-moving research demands?

And as we embark on the creation of a national plan for RDI infrastructure, it is a reminder that a narrow view of what constitutes research will ultimately damage the prospects for delivering the interconnected structures that will be required to drive impactful research in the future.

Leave a Reply