Natural History Museum to relocate 27m specimens to ground-breaking big data hub

Article: David Styles | Image: Preparing the collections © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

More than a third of the Natural History Museum’s collections will be relocated to a new state-of-the-art research facility in Oxfordshire over the next five years.

Representing the largest collections move carried out since the 1880s, the vast migration will see 27 million specimens rehomed in a new science and digitisation centre at Harwell Campus – a location selected for its status as “one of the leading hubs of technology and innovation in the UK and internationally”, according to Dr Doug Gurr, the museum’s director.

The arduous moving process has now been started by the organisation’s curation and conservation teams, who are busily auditing collections and testing out processes for checking, digitising, packaging and moving the artefacts – an undertaking anticipated to last five years.

A draw of molluscs is measured up © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Transferring a huge portion of the institution’s collections to the site will, it is hoped, ensure the artefacts and the highly significant data contained in them – informing real time decision making on climate change, biodiversity loss and emerging diseases – are safe, accessible and digitally available across the world.

Cabinets of ocean bottom sediment collections © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

What’s headed to Oxfordshire?

The new science and digitisation centre will house Natural History Museum artefacts including:

  • mammal collections
  • non-insect invertebrates (corals, crustaceans, molluscs, and worms)
  • molecular collections
  • ocean bottom sediments
  • more than 600m³ of accompanying Library material

“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,” notes Dr Tim Littlewood, executive director of science at the Natural History Museum.

The institution’s ambition is to digitise every specimen moved to the new site. Over 4.8 million specimens have been digitised and made openly accessible through the Natural History Museum Data Portal thus far, resulting in 27 billion records being downloaded in more than 400,000 download events. Citations of the digital collection in scientific papers now exceed 1,000.

Measuring up a Megaloceros specimen © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

The new centre, which is expected to be completed by 2026, has received £182 million in DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport) investment as the UK Government sees the site as integral to its vision of bolstering the nation’s standing in the global field of R&D.

With a footprint similar to that of four football pitches, the purpose-built research hub will feature storage and conservation facilities, digitisation and imaging suites, molecular laboratories, cryo-facilities, high performance computing clusters and collaborative spaces for resident and visiting scientists.

Specimen example © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

While the new venue enhances opportunities to engage with the collections, benefits will also be felt at the Natural History Museum’s flagship site in South Kensington, according to executive director of engagement Clare Matterson.

The relocation will, she states, allow the institution to “share even more of the collection with the public as currently we can only display 1% of our collection at any given time”.