Science museum

Natural History Museum and Science Museum begin to show hidden collections in new countryside locations

A visit to the Natural History Museum offers visitors an overview of just 1% of the institution’s collections. It’s a story familiar to many of the UK’s great cultural institutions, with countless treasures hidden in dilapidated storage facilities unsuited to the rigors of modern conservation.

To combat this, an ever-growing group of museums are migrating many of their artifacts to new rural locations – and in doing so, aim to reinvent the way the public interacts with the nation’s heritage.

Having occupied the same South Kensington lair since 1886, the Natural History Museum is in the throes of a painstaking process to study, catalog, digitize, package and transport 27 million objects from London to a new 182 million pound home on the Oxfordshire’s Harwell campus, a business park on the edge of the North Wessex Downs.

The move frees two of the museum’s largest galleries from their use as ancillary storerooms and will allow the museum to make a much larger percentage of its collections accessible to the public online – which has grown steadily since the UK’s first foreclosure. United.

Repatriation of about a third of its artifacts is essential to “unlock the collection in terms of public access, but also analytically to aid scientific research,” said Tim Littlewood, executive director of science at the Natural History Museum. I.

“Even for someone like me, who wanted to be Jacques Cousteau as a child, it’s always exciting to open a drawer that contains 19th century Papua New Guinea or 18th century Scotland. We want to share the joy of our collections with as many people as possible, wherever they are.

Currently, only 1% of the Natural History Museum‘s artefacts are on display (Photo: Aimee McArdle / NHMLondon)

The Science Museum Group is another heavyweight transferring parts of its collections to greener pastures. More than 300,000 objects will be moved to its Wiltshire National Collections Center, at the site of a former RAF airfield near Swindon, by 2024. The first objects arrived in June this year.

Public tours will take place at a specially designed new facility, Building One, which has been built on 545 acres of land with native forests and one of the UK’s largest solar farms. This ultramodern structure is a far cry from the archaic stores of Blythe House that the Science Museum currently shares with the V&A and the British Museum.

The new site has been “built with access in mind” and gives the public “the opportunity to see thousands of amazing objects together in one place – not organized as part of a particular exhibition”, according to Laura Humphreys, the Science Museum‘s curatorial commitment and collections director.

Building One also offers a glimpse into the future of heritage conservation. Meticulous humidity controls in a facility powered by photovoltaic roof panels and biomass boilers will provide tailored care for artifacts while minimizing the site’s carbon footprint.

The climate crisis is a key factor for museums around the world that are hastily shipping items out of cities. After the Seine in Paris nearly blew its banks in 2016 and 2018, the Louvre moved 150,000 objects from dozens of obsolete facilities to a new 60 million euros (£ 51 million) conservation center in The north of france.

This summer’s flooding in London was a reminder of how vulnerable many objects are here in Britain. Lessons from the past show that the capital offers little resistance to the power of nature: in January 1928, a brimming Thames flooded the shops of Tate Britain, leaving a myriad of lost works of art for future generations.

Creating a closer connection between the public and the preserved objects, however, remains the main motivation for museums to take these important steps, and the National Army Museum in Chelsea, west London, provides an optimistic prototype of how to achieve this goal.

Prior to the pandemic, the organization had launched a ‘shop tour’ initiative, inviting members of the public to explore the vast arsenal of items housed in its Hertfordshire collections center.

“People never fail to be amazed when they find out that we have pieces of the Berlin Wall in Stevenage,” says Terri Dendy, head of standards and care of the museum’s collections, who led the tours – which have all been sold.

“This is a great method for engaging with the community away from the museum’s brilliant exhibits.” She is hopeful that events will be resumed when Covid concerns subside further. “A really important aspect is also that it is a fundamental right, as a taxpayer, to have access to national collections,” she says. “You shouldn’t have to fill out tons of paperwork and justify your reasons. ”


The objects which will be freely accessible to the public at the National Collections Center of the Science Museum near Swindon highlight the quality and variety of objects stored in storerooms across the country.

Academic papers and personal items from Professor Stephen Hawking’s office are currently being processed following their arrival in Wiltshire. Acquired by the Science Museum earlier this year, items that will be on display include the famous physicist’s custom wheelchairs, scripts from his appearance in The Simpsons, and science bets Hawking signed with a thumbprint.

The work of another pioneer, Sir Christopher Cockerell, will also be presented to visitors to the National Collections Center. The engineer’s most famous creation, the world’s first hovercraft, will be accompanied by a series of his other inventions.

Researchers and those visiting the public at the new facilities of the Natural History Museum in Oxfordshire can expect to encounter specimens of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the weight of whale remains to a capable microscopic ‘water bear’. to survive in space.

A shellfish drawer is measured before being moved to Harwell (Photo: Aimee McArdle / NHMLondon)

However, much of the institution’s focus is on digital access, with nearly five million specimens having already been digitized and made accessible through its data portal. More than 27 billion records have been downloaded since the launch of the platform.

Taking online access in a slightly more fun direction, the Science Museum’s Never Been Seen website allows anyone to access a randomly generated item housed in its collection – each of which has never been seen before by a other member of the public.

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