Natural History Museum relocating 27 million specimens to cutting edge science research facility

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Harwell move preparations. Photo credit: National History Museum.

The Natural History Museum has announced it will be relocating 27 million specimens, around a third of its overall collection, to a new science and digitisation centre at Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire.

The new centre, which has been enabled through a £182m investment from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport as part of Government wide priority to increase investment in R&D, will help ensure the collections and the vast data contained in them are safe, accessible and digitally available for researchers all over the world, strengthening the UK’s position in tackling global challenges including climate change, biodiversity loss and emerging diseases.

Dr Tim Littlewood, Executive Director of Science at the Natural History Museum says:

“We are in a race against time to find evidence-based solutions to the major challenges facing our planet. We need accurate big data on nature to measure global change and inform future policies and this new centre will allow us to generate and process that through a major acceleration of our digitisation programme.

We are proud that the Government has recognised the critical role both our global collections and research expertise can play in tackling the planetary emergency through this major investment in the natural sciences.”

Harwell move preparations – Source NHM.

In addition to driving digitisation, the centre will also enable the Museum’s 300 scientists to develop and work with existing and new partners to apply the latest innovative technologies such as AI, imaging and genomic analysis to the collections to gain a better understanding of natural diversity, how it responds to change and how we can address the planetary emergency. 

The new world-class centre will take a 21st century approach to collections-based science, bringing together vital collections with cutting-edge facilities. It will house the Natural History Museum’s vast mammal collections, non-insect invertebrates (such as corals, crustaceans, molluscs, and worms), molecular collections, and ocean bottom sediments, totalling over 27 million specimens, as well as over 600m3 of accompanying Library material. These scientifically critical collections contain vast data on the natural world and how it has changed. From a microscopic ‘water bear’ that can survive in outer space to the remains of magnificent whales, the specimens cover millions of years and every ocean and land mass of the planet.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said:

“The Natural History Museum’s 80 million objects form one of the world’s most important scientific collections.

This multi-million pound investment will ensure the Museum’s objects are preserved for future generations and can continue to play a vital role for research into issues such as biodiversity and the fight against global diseases.”

Spanning the size of approximately four football pitches, the sustainably built facility will provide state-of-the-art collections storage and conservation facilities, digitisation and imaging suites, molecular laboratories, cryo-facilities, high performance computing clusters and collaborative spaces for the Museum’s leading research and visiting scientists. Construction is scheduled to complete in 2026.

Dr Doug Gurr, Director of the Natural History Museum says:

“We’ve purposely chosen to develop the new centre at one of the leading hubs of technology and innovation in the UK and internationally, because the collections are such a powerful scientific tool. It’s a unique opportunity to reshape the role museum collections play in research, for the benefit of the UK and our contribution to international research.”

Stuart Grant, Chief Executive of Harwell Science and Innovation Campus added:

“We’re looking forward to over 27 million specimens of all shapes and sizes from an Irish Elk to Darwin’s barnacles, arriving at their new home, here at Harwell Campus.

“As a world-leading science and innovation community, the new digitisation centre will be an incredible addition to Harwell’s collection of renowned national facilities, enabling the Natural History Museum to future-proof collections-based research and allowing scientists to solve the challenges and planetary pressures that we face.”

Over 4.8 million specimens have already been digitised and made openly accessible through the Museum’s Data Portal to date, resulting in 27 billion records downloaded over 400k download events and over 1000 scientific papers citing the digital collection. The ambition is that all specimens moving to the new site will be digitised, significantly enhancing the information available to the scientific community.

The relocation of these specimens will also enhance the experience for visitors to the Natural History Museum. Clare Matterson, Executive Director of Engagement explains:

“This relocation will release space in our galleries at South Kensington allowing us to share even more of the collection with the public as currently we can only display 1% of our collection at any given time.

I should also reassure visitors that all of their firm favourites from Guy the Gorilla, Hope the Whale and Sophie the Stegosaurus will continue to have pride of place!”

Curation and conservation teams have now begun to audit the collections and test out processes for checking, digitising, packaging and moving the millions of specimens to their new home – a process which is expected to take at least five years to complete.

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