The Natural History Museum 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 set to open in 2026.
The news comes just a few weeks after the Science Museum welcomed the first objects arriving at its new home near Swindon.
The new centre will help ensure the collections and the vast data contained in them are safe, accessible and digitally available for researchers all over the world. It will also help strengthen the UK’s position in tackling global challenges including climate change, biodiversity loss and emerging diseases.
The facility has been enabled through a £182m investment from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.
Dr Tim Littlewood, Executive Director of Science at the Natural History Museum said: ‘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. This new centre will allow us to generate and process that data 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.’
The centre will also enable the Museum’s 300 scientists to 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 is changing and how we can address the planetary emergency.
Opening in 2026, 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 span millions of years and come from every ocean and land mass of the planet.
The sustainably built facility will comprise two buildings, covering an area the size of four football pitches. It will provide new collections storage and conservation facilities, digitisation and imaging suites, new molecular laboratories, cryo-facilities, high-performance computing clusters and collaborative spaces for visiting researchers.
Dr Doug Gurr, Director of the Natural History Museum said: ‘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.’
More than 4.8 million specimens have already been digitised and made openly accessible through the Museum’s Data Portal, resulting in 27 billion downloads 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 one percent of our collection at any given time.
‘I can 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.