The Natural History Museum (NHM) has defended its decision to move some of its collections to a new research facility at Reading University after criticism from scientists and academics.
The museum is creating a research centre at the university’s Thames Valley Science Park in Shinfield, Berkshire, where it will rehouse around 28 million specimens and 5,500 metres of accompanying library material in what will be the institution's biggest collections move since the 1880s.
However in a letter to The Times earlier this month, 30 academics and experts from around the world warned the move would undermine the museum’s scientific activities, and questioned why the centre had not been located at a London university.
Signed by seven former museum staff, including the museum’s former biodiversity and research officer Fred Naggs, the letter said: “The study of living diversity and extinction is no longer the NHM’s primary business. Only natural history museums with their collections and experts located in intact and cohesive institutions can lead in this arena. Instead the NHM is leading the museum world in its loss of expertise.”
The letter said that while the number of staff at the NHM has almost doubled in the past 50 years, to 911, the proportion caring for collections and researching animals and plants has dropped from 55% to 15%.
“It is two decades since the director of the museum had a background of scientific research,” the letter added. “As a matter of urgency, an independent public inquiry should investigate the museum’s scientific activities and failure to address the global biodiversity crisis.”
A similar plan by the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, to move its Herbarium research facility to the site and open the vacated building up to the public, has also been criticised by the scientific community.
In a subsequent interview, Naggs told The Times: “My take is [that NHM] considered the collections and the scientists to be occupying prime real estate and that they could simply be moved out of London.
“It just splits science in two, it degrades it as a scientific institution. It just simply cannot function as an integrated organisation when you’ve pretty much randomly split the collections into two locations, which aren’t exactly down the road from each other.”
Naggs said he had spoken out because current staff at the museum felt they could not freely express their views.
In a response to the letter, the museum’s executive director of science, Tim Littlewood, wrote: “We published 718 new research papers in 2022-23, many of which were linked to our collections.
"Our 376 scientists are determined to increase understanding of biodiversity loss and help provide solutions. The decision to move some of the collection to a purpose-built storage and science facility has been made with them and the wider scientific community.
“Safeguarding the future of our collections, providing better storage, improved physical access and availability through digitisation and dedicated laboratories enable our researchers, and those from around the world, to unlock and share data globally.
"Visiting researchers will have easier access to the objects. Investing in natural history collections as science infrastructure makes good sense if we want to help nature recover.”
A museum spokeswoman said: “We’re moving some of the collection to Reading to make it easier for us to take care of it, digitise it and share its data with scientists all over the world who are finding solutions to problems like climate change, biodiversity loss and food security.
“We came to this decision by listening carefully to our colleagues and the wider scientific community. As a leading scientific research centre, we think it’s important to unlock and share the value of all natural history collections.”
The research centre has been designed by architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. The NHM appointed Mace as its preferred contractor to build the £200m facility this week.
The Thames Valley Research Park is being planned as a hub for museum research collections. The British Museum has already moved thousands of objects to a new Archaeological Research Centre on the site, which is due to open shortly.
The NHM has made biodiversity loss a priority of its delegation at this week’s Cop28 climate change summit in the United Arab Emirates.
The museum will be sharing its preliminary analysis into the Cop15 commitment to protect 30% of land by 2030.
To coincide with the summit, the museum has also collaborated with Bloomberg to make its Biodiversity Intactness Index available to financial markets for the first time. The tool will be built to allow investors to screen for companies that are operating in areas with intact ecosystems or in areas where the ecosystem integrity is diminishing.
“This ground-breaking collaboration heralds a new era in our efforts to safeguard the world's biodiversity,” said NHM director Doug Gurr.
“Thanks to Bloomberg, we have been able to make our research available to support investment decision-making for the first time, with the aim of addressing the challenges faced by our planet. We’re hopeful that this innovation will be recognised as a watershed moment in advancing financial strategies to tackle the planetary emergency.”