Gone fishing – first collection move pilot study underway | Clare Atkinson, Collections Assistant

Imagine inspecting millions of specimens collected over hundreds of years to check the correct information is recorded on the database, including where they are located. If it doesn’t exist in the database, imagine having to individually enter the correct information for these millions of specimens. And if that wasn’t challenging enough, imagine being timed while you do it. This is happening right now in a pilot study at the Museum’s South London storage facility, in preparation for the biggest move of specimens since the Museum opened in 1881.

In 2026 the Natural History Museum’s ground-breaking new science and digitisation centre will open at Harwell Campus, Oxfordshire. A modern collections facility will be created at the centre, and this will become the new home for millions of specimens, protecting them for future generations and removing them from deteriorating old buildings where they are at risk of damage. It will also be a new hub for Museum researchers, partners and collaborators to tackle urgent global challenges, from biodiversity loss to climate change.

One of the first stages of planning the move is to check what we have and where it is.

South London Outstation

The current storage facility at the Museum’s South London Outstation houses a huge variety of specimens, all of which will be moved to either Harwell, or spaces at South Kensington or Tring. They include for Life Sciences:

Herpetology (reptiles and amphibians) – approx. 1000
Fish – approx. 650
Birds – approx. 3200
Mammals – approx. 10,000

In addition to these specimens, there are many more Vertebrate specimens not fully audited, including archaeological material, comprising of thousands more.

Collections have been housed at the storage facility since 1995 but problems with unstable environmental conditions and increasing infrastructural issues has meant its suitability for storing Natural History collections in the long-term is problematic. Collections need to be kept in stable environments with appropriate temperature, air flow and humidity to ensure they are protected and can continue to be scientifically useful for years to come.

Since 2010 the facility has often implemented new innovations in collections preparation and care. For example, the development of the Life Sciences Large Vertebrates Preparation and Quarantine Facilities, and the decant from South Kensington of thousands of Life Sciences Vertebrate specimens. The NHM Integrated Pest Management programme was first trialled at the facility, and implementation of agreed levels of environmental, storage and pest control created a framework of understanding across all Museum sites. Unfortunately, despite improved internal management and storage at the site, an ageing building fabric increasingly places collections at risk and ultimately is the reason why moving collections to Harwell will improve their long-term care.

Getting collections ready to move

The pilot study conducted in Life Sciences Vertebrate collections is important to test different inventory approaches, to better understand which is appropriate for different parts of our collection. Timing how long it takes to audit each collection will also help in future time projections for the move and highlight what is and isn’t possible to digitise within the timeframe of the project. Get set, go!

Before any collection can be moved (read more about preparing to move collections) there is the formidable task of auditing it accurately. This is to ensure every single specimen or batch of specimens (eg shelves, boxes, trays) are recorded, enabling them to be ‘tracked’ when moving.

Our ambition is to digitise (create discoverable database records) all specimens that will be part of the move to Harwell. This will be a huge step towards realising the Museum’s aim to fully digitise the collections and make them visible and globally accessible for researchers and the public through the NHM Data Portal (you can explore the digital collections here).

David Cooper and and Benjamin Drew assessing the fish collection

Fish first

The Vertebrate curation team who are managing the pilot study decided to start with taxidermy and dry prepared fish specimens. This collection is already relatively well digitised, of a relatively small size, and therefore suitable for testing out procedures for auditing.

David Cooper and Benjamin Drew, both Curatorial Assistants in Life Sciences, looked at every single one of the 650 specimens to ensure their records included the correct registration number, species, collector, and location (a discoverable record).

By carrying this out they are able to create the basic information needed to prepare the collection for moving, but more work is still required to test other procedures for tracking specimens through barcoding and carrying out conservation assessments prior to packing and moving. The same processes will now be performed with mammal, herpetology and bird taxidermy and other collections at the storage facility.

Detective work

Finding information about each specimen to see if its record exists is not always straightforward. At times, the team have had to put their detective caps on and search through sectional archives and catalogues to find the correct information. So far, they have come across torn labels with only half the information, labels with just a species name but no number, labels tucked away behind fins, and sometimes no label at all, just a scribble of pencil on a wooden base. It will be interesting to see what else will be discovered during this project.   

Some of the mysteries the team has had to solve so far – torn labels, missing information and in some cases only a specimen number on the base

Finally, mammals

The mammal collection takes up the largest space in the storage facility and is very likely to move to Harwell Campus. For this collection not every specimen has a record on the collections management system, but many of the existing records are held on other types of databases and will need auditing and integrating into the system. Furthermore, mammal database records are made up of parent and part records, in which a registration number (parent record) can include several different specimens (parts) and this aspect of the database makes the auditing process slightly more complex.

The team will tackle mammal collections once they have a better understanding of the auditing processes and potential difficulties from other Life Sciences Vertebrate collections.

Look out for future blogs on how things are progressing with this pilot study and others that will be starting soon.

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.