The First Steps Of An Epic Move

Written by Clare Valentine, Head of Life Science collections, Natural History Museum, London.

Securing £182m to build a new science and digitisation centre in March 2020 was an incredible moment for the Natural History Museum, and the culmination of many years of hard work across the organisation to make the case for better facilities for the collections and research. The support from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport provides an opportunity to secure the future of the collections by moving them into bespoke, accessible storage, to accelerate digitisation of the collections to expand access for researchers globally and transform the study of natural history through an investment in new analytical facilities, technologies and techniques.

Receiving confirmation of the funding just a matter of days before the UK shutdown for the best part of 2 years didn’t come without its challenges, but it’s been incredible to see the progress that has been made towards our immense plan to build the centre and move tens of millions of specimens there by 2027.

Deciding What Moves Where

One of the first milestones for the collections move was deciding which collections will move where. Currently the collections span multiple buildings at the Museum’s in South Kensington and Tring, from Victorian marvels to post-war monstrosities, an extensive store in South London, as well as some library collections being stored at the British Library’s facility in Boston Spa, Yorkshire – all adding up to a very tricky game of Tetris. After considering a range of different scenarios and visions for the centre we were able to announce which collections would be moving to the Natural History Museum at Harwell last summer. At a high level this includes:

  • Fossil and non-fossil invertebrates
  • Fossil and non-fossil mammals
  • Micropalaeontology and ocean bottom sediments
  • Molecular collections
  • Sectional libraries associated with the specimen collections moving

This adds up to a total of 28 million specimens and 5,500 linear metres of library material to be rehoused at the new centre. Additionally, space freed up at South Kensington means we will be able to carry out a whole range of internal moves of collections to put them in better conditions and improve alignment between collections spaces – this pushes the move project up to a mighty 38 million specimens and 9,500 linear metres of literature (approx. 40% of our collections) – a pretty significant undertaking!

The process of auditing, measuring and checking the vast numbers of collections moving to the new research facility has begun – the move is expected to take until at least 2027. CREDIT Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Data, Data, Data

Now our focus is on data. Data, data and more data. To help us plan the move effectively we need to know a lot more about the millions of collections on the move, their characteristics, the space they take up now and how much space they will need in the future, how big are they, where are they located and much more.

We have a fantastic team who have been working closely with curators to gather all this information. The first task has been to calculate the total volume and footprint of collections moving to the new centre as well as expansion space that will be needed to house new acquisitions or to allow for specimen decompression (ensuring there are no more overcrowded drawers and cupboards!). We’ve been interrupted by lockdowns or work from home restrictions at times, but we’ve recently expanded our collection move team to 18 staff working with specimen collections and are growing our Library and Archive and Conservation teams.

If you’d like to find out a bit more about the data collection process and just how big these 28 million specimens moving to the Natural History Museum at Harwell really are, Katy Hudson and Ellie Clark, two of the Collections Move Team Leaders, explained more about what the team’s been up to in their recent NHM blog.

Collections Assistants have begun to collect a wide range of data on the collections to prepare for the move. CREDIT Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Why Are We Doing This?

This is an incredibly important project for the Museum which will allow us to safeguard the collections for research long into the future. It will provide a modern infrastructure for the study of natural history collections and a bespoke environment to ensure collections are safe, accessible, and digitally available.

It will help us to tackle the perennial problem of space – space to store, study, care for and share the collections, but it is also a key catalyst for growing science and delivering new solutions for nature. Cutting-edge research spaces, molecular laboratories, and the acceleration of digitisation will widen access to the collections for even more scientists and partners to pursue new research questions, explore and discover the collections and unlock the treasures of the natural world.

We will also be able to release space in historical galleries in the museum at South Kensington which are currently used to store collections, meaning a new and improved experience for visitors.

We are taking the time while we prepare for the move to do some curation projects, making sure specimens are stabilised for the move and in a good state of housing so as to be accessible as soon as we open the new centre. We are also using this as an opportunity to catch up on databasing and priority digitisation to further the NHM’s Digital Strategy. Obviously, we don’t have time to capture everything, but it should help progress our plans.

A draw of fossil molluscs is measured up. CREDIT Trustees of the Natural History Museum

How Can I Stay Up To Date?

We’re looking forward to updating the NatSCA community in future blogs as work progresses. In the meantime, you can keep up with the latest news and activities and find out more about our ambitions for the Natural History Museum at Harwell by following us on Twitter and LinkedIn. I’d also encourage you to sign up to receive email updates on our webpage, where we will be sharing the latest news, including information on collections closures as it becomes available. We will try to reduce the impact of the move wherever possible, with intermittent disruption expected until at least 2027, so please do contact the relevant curator as soon as possible to discuss any future access requirements.

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