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Published June 1, 2022 | Version v1
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Digital footprints and search pathways: working with National Collections in Scotland during Covid-19 lockdown to design future

  • 1. University of Strathclyde
  • 2. Edinburgh University
  • 3. National Museums of Scotland
  • 4. National Galleries of Scotland


Digital Footprints and Search Pathways was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Towards a National Collection programme (TaNC) as part of UKRI’s call for COVID-19 projects. The project responded to challenges faced by museums and galleries struggling to engage online with audiences during lockdown, and beyond.

With the aim of understanding how people accessed cultural heritage content during the Covid-19 lockdown period, the Digital Footprints project conducted log analysis of access to the digital collections of the National Museums Scotland (NMS) and National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) over a period of 12 months from April 2020 to March 2021 and compared those with the equivalent months for the past three years. NMS has over 12 million objects with about 783,000 available to search online; and NGS’s online collection has over 98,000 objects of which about 80,000 are available to search. Both online collections have varying degrees of related content and associated data; and user journeys to collection items vary across platforms due to design and the data around the collection items.

In the report that follows, the key insights from the log analysis are discussed in depth. These insights include: 

1.       patterns of access during the year saw greater engagement with collections during lockdown compared to the previous years, but with a very significant prevalence of new over returning visitors; 

2.       most access to the NMS and NGS sites came from computers (desktops or laptops), reflecting the particular conditions of the pandemic but also the continued existence of a broad device ecosystem of access to collections;

3.       despite the relevance of many NGS and NMS objects and collections to developing a richer understanding of contemporary social, political and other issues, users do not often search for such issues, and user studies demonstrate that users might not expect to find ‘topical or trending’ content on cultural heritage collections; and although few online collection items are ‘tagged’ with language associated with contemporary issues, inconsistencies and what is tagged make exploring online collections challenging for users; and

4.       the return on investment for the use of external platforms is mixed and institution-specific. Different collection items gain traction in different places, and the number of items available on the partner platforms does not necessarily translate to more views on the cultural institutions’ website


Digital Footprints Final Report TaNC.pdf

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Additional details


Towards a National Collection Programme Directorate AH/V000802/1
UK Research and Innovation