One Collection: The future of the Science Museum Group’s storage and archive facilities

By Adrian Murphy. Main Image: The new collection management facility is based on an enhanced warehouse design and early plans suggest a length of almost 300 metres by 92m. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

The Science Museum Group (SMG) is embarking on what it calls its most ambitious project in a generation to transport 320,000 items, over the next five years, to a purpose built collections management facility at its National Collections Centre in Wiltshire

One Collection, as the project is known, will open in 2023 and is a vision of what the future of an out-of-town collections management and storage facility will look like. It has been designed with both museum professionals and the public in mind.

Currently the SMG’s collections are split between Blythe House in west London and its National Collections Centre, which is located within the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, 6.5km south of Swindon.

This energy efficient and humidity-controlled facility will set a new benchmark for sustainable collection care

Jonathan Newby, Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer for the Science Museum

However, the Grade II listed Blythe House is more than 110 years old and does not meet modern standards for collections care and is not sealed against atmospheric pollutants. Some larger items from the collection are stored in former WWII aircraft hangars at the National Collections Centre, which are unsuited to the long-term preservation of the collection and are now reaching the point where they cannot be effectively maintained.

Jonathan Newby, Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer for the Science Museum, says the Government’s decision to sell Blythe House in west London as part of its Spending Review in November 2015, and provide part-funding to move the collection, was the project’s catalyst. Blythe House also houses parts of the British Museum and V&A collections, with the former opening a new World Conservation and Exhibition Centre in 2014 and the latter currently planning V&A East, a new civic space with storage facilities at Stratford Waterfront.

“This is the most ambitious project the Science Museum Group has undertaken for a generation,” says Newby. “It will transform how we care for and share our internationally significant collection with the world, enabling the Group to sustain and grow the national collection for future generations, increase access (both physically and digitally) and engage audiences across the globe with the collection.”

Mendoza Review on Collections Storage 

Newby also says that the project will provide a timely and strategic response to the challenges mentioned in the Mendoza Review, published in November 2017, with the benefits reaching far beyond the Science Museum Group.

The Mendoza Review highlighted ‘insufficient storage’ as a common challenge for museums, as well as a need for greater public funding of collections management and storage projects that, ultimately, improve the public offer.

The review said: “Storage has been a low priority for funders, which tend to concentrate on areas open to visitors. However, basic building infrastructure or storage projects that protect the collection can be just as important to the visitor experience. Storage has suffered underinvestment and lack of maintenance, leaving inadequate facilities with little public access, insufficient space, or poor environmental quality. This has placed valuable collections at risk, or, in a few cases, already resulted in damage.”

In the review Kelvin Hall in Glasgow was mentioned as one of the most recent innovative storage projects, which opened last year and transferred 400,000 items from a poorly accessible storage facility on the edge of Glasgow into a new facility in the city centre.

The new SMG collections facility, however, will be transferring items from a city location to a former RAF airfield in Wroughton, as well as relocating objects on the site into the new centre. The Science Museum Group took ownership of the 545-acre site in 1979, and has used it as the storage facility for the largest objects of the Science Museum Group collections such as the first hovercraft, MRI scanners and science publications to nuclear missiles as well as an extensive collection of aircraft, road transport vehicles, agricultural machinery and industrial objects.

The new collection management facility is based on an enhanced warehouse design and early plans suggest a length of almost 300 metres by 92m. It will incorporate construction techniques currently used in facilities for manufacturing food and medicines, and will be energy efficient while providing a stable, clean environment for the collection.

“This energy efficient and humidity-controlled facility will set a new benchmark for sustainable collection care,” says Newby. “Alongside a massive storage hall, the facility will contain conservation laboratories, research spaces, photography studios and flexible spaces that can meet the needs of different users.”

The new SMG facility will house more than 80 per cent of the Science Museum Group Collection and will open regularly from 2023, enabling the public, school groups and researchers to see much more of its vast collection.

Standout items from the Science Museum Group collections

  • Alan Turing’s Pilot ACE computer; one of the first models used to represent atoms
  • Charles Babbage’s drawings and models
  • Dorothy Hodgkin’s model of penicillin
  • Helen Sharman’s spacesuit and Tim Peake’s spacecraft
  • Amy Johnson’s Gipsy Moth aircraft
  • Famous locomotives from Stephenson’s Rocket and Sans Pareil to Mallard and Flying Scotsman
  • The world’s earliest surviving photographic negative.

It will also enable SMG colleagues to study the collection more efficiently, improving processes for displaying collection items across the five museums and allow the Group to loan even more items to UK and international institutions.

As part of the One Collection project, the group is also photographing and publishing online almost all items it moves. This rapid digitisation means the group can now share thousands of new images of the collection online. Together with updated records, this will create one of the most extensive online scientific collections in the world it says, accessible to all via  a special website.

“We will engage new and existing audiences with the collection through wide-ranging programme of activities, including public events, art commissions and varied online content. Ultimately, our ambitious project will enable audiences across the globe to better understand, use and admire the Science Museum Group Collection.”

New online method and collections review 

A new online method has also been launched this summer for exploring the collection’s vast breadth and uncovering hidden gems – the Random Object Generator, which shows a different item from across the SMG collection shown every ten seconds.

Also this summer, SMG has announced a review of the Science Museum Group Collection of 7.3m objects, photographs and archive materials that its museums care for on behalf of the nation.

“The review will enable us to take a step back and examine the significance of what we have, using new knowledge and research by our curators,” says Newby. “It will give us a better understanding of the collection as a whole, helping the Group identify items that need conservation work or further research, find items which may be better suited to display or research in other museums and enable us to set priorities for items to collect in the future.”

As the work progresses on the One Collection project from April 2019 there will be no access to the Science Museum Group collection held at Blythe House. However, the collection research facilities at the Science and Industry Museum, National Science and Media Museum, and the National Railway Museum will continue to be accessible.