Preparing for the Museum’s largest ever move of natural history specimens | Sarah-Jane Newbery, Harwell Moves Project Manager

Me and Dolly the dog (not yet part of the moves team)

How do you lift a whale, pack a bear, or keep molecular samples at sub-zero temperatures as they navigate the M4? Welcome to my world, the world of the Harwell Moves Project Manager at the Natural History Museum…

Moves management is not really a job you come across on a regular basis, and when I get asked how I ended up in this career it can sometimes be a little awkward to say it was somewhat influenced by my love of Prince. Yes, that Prince, 80s visionary, Purple Rain pioneer and all-time legend. But I must admit that when I was given the option in one of my first roles at the National Archives of either going on archive management training or a PRINCE2 course (a methodology used for project management), it was obvious what I’d choose…

Last year I had the privilege of joining the museum to manage the exciting, if slightly daunting(!), move of millions of specimens to our new science and digitisation centre at Harwell Campus (you can find out more about the project here). This is a huge 6-year programme which will involve moving some of the biggest and smallest specimens on the planet, and over the past few months we’ve been starting to plan how we might go about achieving it.

Biggest collection move since the 1800s

The move to Harwell Campus will be the museum’s biggest move of the collections since opening at South Kensington on 18 April 1881. In the early 1800’s Sir Richard Owen, ‘Superintendent’ at the time, pleaded the case for a new building to house the growing collections – by the late century his vision had become a reality. 140 years on and here we go again, this time with a few more specimens!

But why are we moving some collections? This is a project that has been many years in the making, and is a key part of the museum’s aim to secure the future of the collection and make sure it is safe, accessible, and digitally available. The new centre will allow us to relocate specimens from deteriorating old buildings where they are currently at risk of damage, to a bespoke leading-edge collections facility. It will also place the collections within a world-leading network of scientific talent and national laboratories, opening them up for new research opportunities.

From minerals to moths, algae to antelopes or books to beetles, the breadth and depth of the collections is vast – we don’t yet know which collections will be moving to the new centre, but it will definitely be diverse! Likewise, the project will involve a huge range of people from across the museum; curators, conservators, digitisers, project managers and many many more. So here’s just a few of the things we are starting to prepare for…

Conservation

At any one time less than 1% of the collections are on display. The remainder of the specimens are stored away and cared for by expert curators, providing a comprehensive record of the natural world. Whilst many specimens are used in research seeking to understand and protect the planet, with such a large collection many others may not have been seen or handled for years. A big part of the work of the moves project will be to evaluate the condition of the specimens, and then to painstakingly curate, clean and stabilise them where necessary to ensure they are in appropriate condition for the move.  The teams will also be looking out for specific hazards that are present in the collections, either as part of the collections or contaminants, such as chemicals used in the past for pest control. Everything will need to be handled and packed in a safe and correct manner, as well as recorded in our database.

Some specimens will need bespoke frames to support them while in transit
A giraffe specimen being moved into Hintze Hall in 2017

Packing & tracking

Once we’re happy with the condition of the specimens it’s time for packing. This may sound simple, but with such a huge range of collections it’s a big job. We will need to build bespoke frames to support large specimens like giraffes on their journey, create temperature-controlled environments for frozen specimens, and properly protect highly sensitive analysis equipment. Luckily, we have a huge amount of expertise in the museum to mastermind this! We’ll also be setting up a system to track each of the specimens as they go through their journey to ensure we know where they are at all times.

Digitising

Widening access to the collections through digitisation is also a key aim for the museum, and the move to Harwell is a great opportunity to fast track this process. We will be revealing collections from across the Museum that are usually difficult to access and documenting as many of these as possible to extend access to this vital information.

Specimens in quarantine at our current storage facility
Digitisation will be a key part of the moves process

Quarantining

We’ve arrived safely at Harwell Campus with a truck of specimens, finished! Not necessarily. Some specimens are at risk of carrying pests with them to the new site and we have strict IPM (Integrated Pest Management) procedures that need to be followed – therefore some items will have to quarantine on arrival (something we’re all a lot more familiar with after the last year!). This involves placing them in huge freezers for a few days to make sure the pests aren’t transferred into the new centre, or to other specimens that travelled with them. Our tracking system will also help us understand which specimens travelled together so that if any specimens are later found to be carrying pests, the specimens they moved with can be quarantined as well – think of it as test and trace for natural history collections.

Over the next few months we will be starting to carry out some of the first pilots to help us plan the moves – look out for more on this in future blogs. We will also start planning the sequence of the moves – what moves when – and hope to release a top-level move plan towards the end of next year. So lots to get on with!

I have to say, whilst navigating a new job and learning about the collections largely from home has been challenging at times, it’s fantastic to play a part in this next big journey for the museum.

To find out more about the NHM@Harwell programme and to sign-up for email updates, including information on collections closures, visit our website. If you enjoyed this blog please do feel free to share with your networks or on social media.