University of Reading: Natural History Museum to open research centre at TVSP

The Natural History Museum is today announcing plans to develop a new global and sustainable base for high-end natural sciences research and international collaboration with the University of Reading.

Subject to planning permission, the centre will be created at the Thames Valley Science Park (TVSP), which is owned and managed by the University, within Wokingham Borough. It will widen access to the collections for the Museum’s 350 scientists, their collaborators, and researchers worldwide through rapid digitisation and cutting-edge science facilities.

The new centre has been enabled through major investment from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport as part of a UK Government-wide priority to increase investment in R&D. It will help ensure the collections and the vast data contained in them are safe, accessible and digitally available for researchers all over the world, strengthening the UK’s position in finding solutions to the planetary emergency.

Arts Minister, Lord Parkinson, said: “The Government is investing tens of millions in this fantastic project to protect the Natural History Museum collection for future generations and to help academics and researchers tackle major challenges such as climate change, food security and biodiversity conservation.

“The partnership between the museum and the University of Reading will also see the UK blaze a trail worldwide through the rapid digitisation of collections in cutting-edge science facilities – securing our position as a leader in research and collaboration.”

Director of the Natural History Museum, Doug Gurr, says: “The University of Reading has a world-class reputation for teaching and research and there is enormous scope for collaboration on shared areas of scientific specialisms from climate science to agriculture and forestry, biodiversity loss and emerging diseases.

“We look forward to joining the lively community of ambitious, knowledge-based organisations at Thames Valley Science Park and forging closer relationships with institutions already based there – and of course reuniting with the British Museum through its Archaeological Research Collection.”

Largest collections move since 1880s

A draw of molluscs being measuredThe new centre 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 more than 27 million specimens, as well as more than 5,500 metres of accompanying Library and archive material. This equates to around a third of the Museum’s collection of more than 80 million objects, making the relocation its largest collections move since the 1880s. 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 cover millions of years and every ocean and land mass of the planet.

The development of new, bespoke accommodation will enable the Museum to move collections currently at risk of deterioration and irreparable damage from being housed in unsuitable buildings to facilities which meet international collection standards. The new centre will integrate specialist facilities to care for specimens and enable the cataloguing, protection and growth of the collection as well as expand the range of analytical techniques applied and scale up the Museum’s genetic sequencing and molecular work.

Unlocking and sharing data – supporting research on the state of our planet

A much-needed acceleration and enhancement in the digitisation of the Museum’s collections will be made possible by the new centre, unlocking access for the global scientific community to unrivalled historical, geographic and taxonomic specimen data gathered in the last 250 years.

Demand for data from the Museum’s collections is significant. Over 5 million specimens have been digitised and released openly onto the Museum’s Data Portal. While this is only 6% of the collection, over 30 billion records have been downloaded with over 1700 scientific publications citing Natural History Museum data. The societal benefits of digitising natural history collections are immense and include global advancements in food security, biodiversity conservation, medicine discovery and minerals exploration. The Museum’s digitised collections have already helped establish the baseline plant biodiversity in the Amazon, found wheat crops that are more resilient to climate change, and support research into the potential zoonotic origins of Covid-19.

Cabinets of ocean bottom sediment collectionsThe Museum is committed to providing a comprehensive digital collection so that everyone, including researchers, scientists and data analysts, can access its vast collections. The new facility will help the Museum link specimen data to an enormous network of associated genomic, geospatial, ecological, chemical and other information, which captures not only their key physical characteristics but an enormous range of other data fundamental to improving understanding of the natural world.

Improving visitor experience

The new facility will be an active and integral addition to the Museum’s existing sites in South Kensington and Tring. The relocation of these specimens (none of which include those currently on display) will also enhance the experience for visitors to the Natural History Museum in London which has a range of gallery spaces at South Kensington that are not currently accessible to the public because they are being used to store collections. The Museum will be able to restore these gallery spaces to their intended use and display more of its collection as part of the Museum’s ambitious programme of gallery transformation, placing cutting-edge, contemporary scientific discovery at the heart of its public spaces to create advocates for the planet.

Sustainable new building

Subject to planning permission, the ambition is to deliver a new building that is an exemplar model of low carbon impact – applying best-in-class design practice to reduce lifetime energy and water use.

Spanning the size of approximately three football pitches, the sustainably built facility will provide state-of-the-art collections storage and conservation facilities, digitisation and imaging suites, molecular laboratories, cryo-facilities, high performance computing clusters and collaborative spaces for the Museum’s leading research and visiting scientists. Completion would be expected in 2026.

Joining an established scientific community

The Thames Valley corridor is an area of intensive scientific activity. The University of Reading is a leading centre for the study of the environment, science, business and the arts, with a global reputation for research on climate and food – many intersecting with NHM research priorities. Its Thames Valley Science Park is already home to science and creative innovators such as the British Museum, the Rutherford Cancer Centre, Shinfield Studios, and Oxford Quantum Circuits.

In addition, the proximity to Oxford University, Harwell, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts makes this a great location for a science hub.

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading, Professor Robert Van de Noort, said: “This is an exciting development for the University of Reading. It could provide significant opportunities for our academics and students, as well as bringing benefits to the broader local area.

“The University already has a working relationship with the British Museum, which also has a facility located at the Thames Valley Science Park, as well as several other national and international organisations. This new relationship with the Natural History Museum should further enhance the international research success of both organisations.

“We look forward to working closely with the Natural History Museum and our local community on the proposed development.”

Comments are closed.