Between 1970 and 1989, an estimated 1300 new museums opened in the UK. The vast majority of these new venues were independent, were founded by individual collectors, community and special interest groups, and they differed from public-sector museums to such an extent that that they were judged to have ‘revolutionized’ the sector.
Although numbers of independent museum continued to rise and they now outnumber all other types of museums, very little is known about them. The Museums Association and numerous regional and national funding bodies collect data on independent museums, but this data has not been cross-referenced, is only minimally searchable, routinely omits smaller venues, and is largely focused on extant venues. As a result we have no overview or historical perspective: we do not know whether there are any national or regional variables in when or where they were founded, what subjects they covered, which museums subsequently closed, or whether there are any correlations between those variables. And perhaps most importantly there is no comprehensive understanding of how that sector has changed in the last six decades.
The interdisciplinary Mapping Museums research project addresses this history and analyses the emergence and development of independent museums in the UK from 1960 until the present day. This has involved extensive archival research, capturing data on 4,000 museums, conceptualizing that information, and designing ways of searching and visualizing this knowledge base. In this paper, we focus on the challenges of the process, and in particular on the patchy data. We investigate why there are so many inconsistencies in the source material, and explain how we have developed a digital resource that both acknowledges uncertainty and supports the generation of new knowledge about the UK museum sector.