Growing science at the Natural History Museum | Tim Littlewood, Director of Science

Dead oysters – not something you think will have much of an impact on your life, but in this case I must be the exception to the rule. In 1987 I found myself in Jamaica, working on an initiative at the University of the West Indies to develop low technology oyster culture. One of my tasks was to understand why oyster mortality was so high – it was also what prompted my first experience of science, and with scientists, at the Natural History Museum.

In the collection today, the original flatworm specimen sent to the Museum in 1987

Recently dead, empty mangrove oyster shells often had large polyclad flatworms inside, but I had no idea what the species was, or its role. I determined experimentally that it was a voracious predator, but without guides, keys or expertise close to hand, I was at a loss to the identity of the worm. In these circumstances a default option for those needing species identification is often to reach out to a natural history museum for help and guidance. I was very lucky. I typed and mailed an aerogramme to the Natural History Museum and was put in contact with a retired staff member, and former Head of Parasitic Worms, Stephen Prudhoe OBE (1911-1992). Mr Prudhoe was arguably the world’s expert on polyclad turbellarian flatworm taxonomy. He kindly explained how to fix and mount the worm on a microscope slide so he could examine it. Upon receipt, he not only provided me with an identification, Stylochus (Stylochus) frontalis Verrill 1892, but vouchered and deposited the specimen in the museum collections – where it remains today. Little did I know that I would later join the Parasitic Worms Section, become Head of Life Sciences and eventually Director of Science at this, one of the world’s leading scientific and cultural institutions, where taxonomy and systematics is still at the heart of our collections and expertise.

Collections are key to understanding, and protecting, the natural world

As custodians for a collection of approximately 80 million global specimens, the Museum is in a unique position to engage people with the diversity of the natural world, its history and future. Our people, collections and science deliver new research which drives solutions for the challenges we, and the natural world, are facing. The NHM is on a mission to create advocates for the planet through our science and public engagement.

Our scientific collections have developed from exploration, discovery, collecting, taxonomy, interrogation and analysis. They capture natural diversity and change from planetary to microscopic scales, from billions of years to fractions of a second, from genes to ecosystems, and from microminerals to mountain ranges. This tremendous resource provides baselines for understanding change and a foundation for both life and earth sciences, and the interactions between these disciplines.

How we study the natural world is rapidly evolving, with new technological advances in molecular science, analytical technology and informatics enabling us to pursue new research questions and revisit others previously considered intractable. The desire to share data and collaborate with increasing speed and integration is fuelled by digital technology. Meanwhile, maintaining, expanding and rethinking how we use natural history collections is essential to track and predict nature’s response to change through space and time, supporting science and collections needs now and for the future in our quest to protect our planet.

In 2020 we set out on an ambitious plan to reimagine the collections and our science through the development of an innovative new science and digitisation centre at Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire. The new centre gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand access to the collections, accelerate digitisation and to secure and protect the collections for years to come. Let’s start with the last first.

Harwell Science & Innovation Campus, Oxfordshire. The Museum will open a new science and digitisation centre here in 2026.

Securing the collections

Museums suffer the perennial problem of space; space to house collections, space to care for collections, space to study the collections, space to grow the collections and space to share the collections. South Kensington is the mothership for all these activities, but we have outgrown our ability to function and expand, with collections at threat and invisible to researchers.

We have a range of buildings on site that despite many years of remedial work, are no longer viable to repair and will never reach modern standards for collections care. We desperately need new space to relocate collections that are currently at risk of damage and deterioration despite the tireless efforts of our incredible curation staff. The new centre at Harwell will provide a modern collections infrastructure for the UK, ensuring the cataloguing, protection and expansion of the collection for future generations. By freeing up some space at South Kensington, we will also have the opportunity to return historic galleries currently used for collections storage back to public use, with new exhibits for our visitors.

Insects are in global decline. Image by liggraphy from Pixabay.

Transforming collections-based research

This last year has seen the undeniably important role science plays in ensuring people and the planet thrive. It has highlighted how a burgeoning global population is placing unsustainable demands on the natural world, narrowing the boundaries between humans and animals with unpredictable and lethal consequences.

Collections-based research is essential to guide our understanding of biological and geological diversity, helping us to answer a plethora of questions – how have natural systems changed in the past? How is the planet responding to current human pressures? What will the natural world look like in the future? What can we do to maintain these environments and ecosystems?

To give just a brief snapshot of some of the current work at the museum…

Pattern and consequences of insect declines – There are growing concerns that insect biodiversity has declined globally, with serious consequences for ecosystem function and services. However, gaps in knowledge currently limit progress in understanding the causes, magnitude and direction of change for this highly important group, as well as predicting future trends or devising mitigation strategies to halt this decline. Andy Purvis, Research Leader in the Diversity and Informatics Division, is leading a multi-institution collaboration that is bringing together diverse sources of information to present a global view on how insect biodiversity has changed due to anthropogenic pressures. This research will allow greater exploration of the trend of insect declines and impacts on broader aspects of ecosystem health and functioning. You can read more about our work using data for conservation, prediction and policy here.

Lithium for future technology – Net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 requires a switch to electric vehicles and increased demand for key metals such as lithium for batteries significantly exceeds current supply. Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences, is leading a project which aims to develop a better understanding of the Earth system processes that concentrate lithium into mineral deposits. This greater understanding will aid the search for new lithium sources that can be mined sustainably and economically.

3D visualisation for new insights – The 3D visualisation laboratory uses cutting-edge technology to digitise objects ranging from 2cm to >3m. The lab works on multiple and diverse projects across the museum and with external partners to enable in-depth analysis and understanding of specimens. This has included investigations on where, when and how humans have evolved with the NHM’s Centre for Human Evolution Research (CHER), to creating a high resolution 3D scan of the extraordinary ‘Hope’ the blue whale, which greets visitors as they enter the Museum.

Harwell is an exceptional opportunity to enable and accelerate NHM science across disciplines and our sites. The new centre will link the collections and research into a broader network of national laboratories and scientific talent, expand access to the wealth of biological and geological data contained within the collections, and enable us to tackle more of the global challenges we are facing.

Slide Scanners

Accelerating digitisation

Discoverability of our collections is key to unlocking their value. The new centre will not only open up the collections and our science, but also offers a chance to scale-up digitisation of specimens and objects.

Digitisation is transforming how researchers access data from collections and it’s enabling new research questions to be answered – take a look at recent blogs from the Digital Collections Programme for some great examples. By harnessing emerging technologies such as AI and big data, and linking collections information with taxonomy/systematics, ecological data, genomic analysis, structural chemistry and more, we can transform the scope of the collection and make deeper insights to support research on the state of our planet. Our first step is to ensure specimens can be discovered digitally.

To date 6% of the Museum’s vast collection has been made digitally accessible – already resulting in 21 billion record downloads and 490 citations in scientific publications, indicating the huge impact this increased access has. Our expansion outside of London and Tring will be both physical and digital, delivering a new future for growth and impact.

In a time of unprecedented and unsustainable environmental change, collections-based research has never been more vital. Our collections are enabling science that will transform our understanding of the natural world and how to protect it, and new technologies are evolving and expanding the science we can lead on and facilitate. This outlook is driving our vision to grow science at the NHM.

The science and digitisation centre at Harwell Campus is a key catalyst for this growth, creating new opportunities that feed into a broad community of scientific leadership, and building a future where both people and planet thrive through the power of scientific innovation and understanding.

You can find out more about the NHM@Harwell programme on our website. We are currently in the process of deciding which collections will be moved to the new centre, with the final decision being announced in July 2021. To be among the first to receive updates, including impacts on collections access, sign up to the mailing list.