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Museum to move over 27 million specimens to new science centre

The Museum will open a new facility to house around a third of its 80 million objects in the largest collections move since the 1880s. 

The new science and digitisation centre will be located at the Thames Valley Science Park in collaboration with the University of Reading.   

From the largest whale to the smallest plankton, some 27 million of the Museums objects will be on the move. 

As science and technology have rapidly advanced, new techniques are also giving unparalleled insights into specimens like never before. The new spaces at the science and digitisation centre will allow for greater international collaboration, big data generation and deeper investigations of the natural world. In addition to this, as the Museum's collections have grown over the past century it has continued to need more space to house the globally important specimens.

The Museum's next phase will be at the Thames Valley Science Park. The site is owned and run by the University of Reading.    

The new development will span the size of approximately three football pitches. The sustainably built facility will include new collections spaces, specialist care and conservation facilities, digitisation suites, molecular laboratories, cryo-facilities and high-performance computing clusters.    

Dr Doug Gurr, the Director of the Museum, says, 'The University of Reading has a world-class reputation for teaching and research and there is enormous scope for collaboration on shared areas of scientific specialisms from climate science to agriculture and forestry, biodiversity loss and emerging diseases.

'We look forward to joining the lively community of ambitious, knowledge-based organisations at Thames Valley Science Park and forging closer relationships with institutions already based there - and of course reuniting with the British Museum through its Archaeological Research Collection.'

The move has been enabled through major investment from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport as part of a UK government-wide priority to increase investment in research and development.  

A box of sea urchins.

The new science centre will allow researchers to investigate specimens in more depth than ever before. ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

The big move

Currently the Museum houses over 80 million objects, but these collections are ever expanding as new specimens, books, and objects are continually added to the extraordinary record of life on this Earth. 

The new facility will be built to house some 27 million of these objects, including the Museum's vast mammal collections, non-insect invertebrates such as corals, crustaceans, molluscs and worms, the Museum's molecular collections, the ocean bottom sediments collection and some 5,500 metres of accompanying library and archival material. 

But in addition to providing new spaces to allow the collections to grow, the centre will also allow for the expansion of specialist facilities for the care of the specimens and new suites for a range of analytical techniques. 

This will include the acceleration and enhancement of the digitisation of the Museum's collections. Currently some five million specimens have been digitised, and it is hoped that this new facility will mean that this process can be sped up and improved upon, giving insights into how climate change and the Anthropocene is impacting on the world's biodiversity. 

Science in the valley

The Thames Valley Science Park is owned by the University of Reading, which is itself a leading centre for the study of the environment and science, covering many similar topics that are priority research areas for Museum scientists.

The Science Park is also already home to several science, creative and cultural institutions, including the British Museum, the Rutherford Science Centre, Shinfield Studios and Oxford Quantum Circuits. The proximity of the site to Oxford University, Harwell and the UK Centre of Ecology and Hydrology will also allow for additional potential collaborations. 

A draw of glass jars, each containing various scientific samples.

Some 27 million specimens will be moved to the new centre, one of the biggest moves of its kind ever undertaken. ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Lord Stephen Parkinson, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State of Arts, says, 'The Government is investing tens of millions in this fantastic project to protect the Natural History Museum collection for future generations and to help academics and researchers tackle major challenges such as climate change, food security and biodiversity conservation. 

'The partnership between the Museum and the University of Reading will also see the UK blaze a trail worldwide through the rapid digitisation of collections in cutting-edge science facilities - securing our position as a leader in research and collaboration.'  

Moving almost a third of the collections to the Thames Valley Science Park will not only provide the space for collections to grow, but will also allow for the expansion of the galleries open to the public at the Museum in South Kensington. This is because a number of once public galleries are currently used to store specimens, and once these spaces have been freed up the Museum will be able to restore the galleries for their original use to display more of the incredible collections currently stored behind the scenes. 

Prof Robert Van de Noort, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading, says, 'This is an exciting development for the University of Reading. It could provide significant opportunities for our academics and students, as well as bringing benefits to the broader local area.   

'The University already has a working relationship with the British Museum, which also has a facility located at the Thames Valley Science Park, as well as several other national and international organisations. This new relationship with the Natural History Museum should further enhance the international research success of both organisations. 

'We look forward to working closely with the Natural History Museum and our local community on the proposed development.'   

Subject to planning permission, the new Museum facility is expected to open in 2026.