Q&A | 'This will be a major step change for collections-based research' - Museums Association

Q&A | ‘This will be a major step change for collections-based research’

The NHM’s Tim Littlewood on how the museum's planned collections move will benefit science
Tim Littlewood is the NHM executive director of science and the senior responsible owner for NHM Unlocked
Tim Littlewood is the NHM executive director of science and the senior responsible owner for NHM Unlocked Courtesy Natural History Museum

Last year, the Natural History Museum (NHM) unveiled plans for a state-of-the-art £200m collections and research centre at Thames Valley Science Park.

The NHM Unlocked project will see the creation of a bespoke facility housing historical collections alongside digitisation and imaging suites and scientific laboratories.

The building is due to be completed in 2027, while the whole project will be finished in 2031. The scheme will be the institution's biggest collections move since the 1880s.

The plans have not been without controversy; last year, 30 scientists and academics signed a letter criticising the decision to move some of the museum's collections out of London, saying it would undermine its scientific activities.

Tim Littlewood, the museum's executive director of science and the senior responsible owner for NHM Unlocked, spoke to Museums Journal about the thinking behind the project and how it will benefit the wider scientific community.

A render of the research centre with a pond in the foreground
The centre will be built in Thames Valley Science Park Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, courtesy Natural History Museum

Can you tell us a little more about NHM Unlocked?

NHM Unlocked is a hugely exciting programme for the Natural History Museum. We’re planning to build a collections, science and digitisation centre at Thames Valley Science Park, housing 28 million specimens.


Historical collections will be seamlessly integrated with modern collections, digitisation and imaging suites, cutting-edge molecular and analytical laboratories and a biobank.

We are ‘unlocking’ our collections to ever wider audiences, making them more accessible to the global scientific community for critical scientific research to unrivalled historical, geographic and taxonomic specimen data gathered by the museum in the last 250 years.

As part of this, we will also be able to unlock spaces currently used for storage at South Kensington to be opened up as new galleries.

We have a statutory and moral duty of care to protect our irreplaceable collections for generations to come. Specimens are physical records of history and change through space and time – the data they contain acts as historical baselines.

As key scientific infrastructure, it is important that collections are secured and protected in appropriate environments – if specimens are damaged, they cannot be replaced. For access, care and study we are building a bespoke, state-of-the-art facility.

The facility will enable the museum to secure, digitise and research its growing collections for the next century. This provides a springboard for developing new technologies, accelerating access and innovating in our approach to collections-based science.


A significant part of the project will be the much-needed scaling and accelerating the digitisation of the museum’s collections.

What possibilities will the new facility bring in terms of research?

The new facility will improve physical and digital access to collections, laboratories, research technologies and data release. Greater access to our scientific infrastructure will accelerate the impact of research which will be enabled through scientific innovation core research laboratories.

These include molecular biology labs and a molecular collections facility for the storage of tissues and DNA to be used for molecular and genomic research.

Other facilities will include labs for ancient, historical and environmental DNA analysis, through to technical workspaces like digitisation suites and an Imaging and Analysis Centre to examine pre-prepared specimens through high-spec technical equipment.

Amassing, layering and analysing big data sets is increasingly possible. The inclusion of museum collections provides new opportunities to better understand the past and the present.


For example, recent research has demonstrated through 3D scans of mammal skulls that study shows aquatic mammals evolve fastest, social mammals evolve faster than solitary ones and herbivores evolve faster than carnivores. This helps predict how quickly different species will respond to rapid changes in their environment and their capacity to evolve.

The modern use and utility of collections far extend beyond the purposes for which specimens were collected. For example, research using genome sequencing of museum specimens has led us to identify the intermediate horseshoe bat (rhinolophus affinis) as carrying a coronavirus 95% similar to the Covid-19 virus.

The museum has a large collection of bat species which can be digitised and data made available openly throughout the world for similar studies on zoonotic diseases and the interactions between biodiversity and health.

This will help researchers to predict future potential viral hotspots by identifying viruses in historic specimens, understanding how ecosystems may have changed over time and how diseases changed and spread.

Understanding variants can also contribute to designing effective vaccines against key functional components of viral genomes.

How will the project build on the museum’s work to address the planetary emergency?

Our new facility will transform the study of natural history through novel analytical technologies and digitisation, and further open up the collections to researchers for scientific innovation, strengthening the UK’s position in finding solutions to the planetary emergency.

Our collections are entombed with patterns, processes, drivers and responses to change – accessible in ways limited only by our ambition and commitment to unlock their secrets.

The centre will enable researchers to find new solutions to key challenges facing the planet such as climate change, biodiversity loss, food security and infectious diseases.

How will the University of Reading be involved?

Our research expertise and collections align well with the University of Reading’s scientific research areas, including its world-leading expertise in climate science. We are forging a partnership focusing initially on six priority themes:

  • Developing joint research expertise to address global environmental challenges.
  • Supporting the development of postgraduate students and early-career researchers.
  • Delivering local community benefits.
  • Developing complementary scientific facilities to transform our science.
  • Using creative approaches to share our collections with broad audiences.
  • Progressing data science innovation.

What made you decide on the location in Thames Valley Research Park?

We explored locations across the country but ultimately found that Thames Valley Science Park fulfilled the museum’s requirements for reasons ranging from technical, people and opportunity best.

It makes sense for us to be clustered with other major scientific and cultural organisations: this proximity enables us to build on these relationships and to develop new ones with other organisations looking to solve the planet’s challenges.

We can share world-class research facilities and be within easy reach of London to aid both multi-site working and to facilitate access by national and international scientific visitors.

What would you say to those who have criticised the move?

We are already a three-site organisation with our museums in South Kensington and Tring (which houses our bird collection as well as Walter Rothschild’s 19th-century collection of mammals, birds, reptiles and insects) and an off-site storage facility, which we are moving out of as part of NHM Unlocked.

Planning for what moves to the new centre has included a detailed evaluation of which collections need to stay together to maximise the scientific benefits.

In some cases, this will bring collections that were historically separated back together, with new opportunities for science. South Kensington will continue to be the home for the largest proportion of our collection and a strong centre of research.

As an organisation we are not limited by geographic boundaries – we also work extensively with partners around the UK and globally through international research collaborations, consultancy, touring and public engagement programmes. We are expanding and widening our partnerships.

Moving some of the collection to Reading makes 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.

In what ways will the Unlocked programme contribute to the museum's digital work?

The museum is committed to providing a comprehensive digital collection so that everyone, including researchers, scientists and data analysts, can access its vast collections. The expansion and acceleration of our digitisation programme with NHM Unlocked will also enable increased access to collections online.

The new facility will help the museum link data of specimens moving to an enormous network of associated genomic, geospatial, ecological, chemical and other information. This captures not only their key physical characteristics but an enormous range of other data fundamental to improving understanding of the natural world.

What aspect of the programme are you most excited about?

I first joined the NHM in 1991 to sequence genes and develop phylogenies for echinoid echinoderms (sea urchins) and fishes with two of our most influential palaeontologists.

This was a major departure for engaging with molecular systematics to understand patterns and processes of evolution. The specimens collected and used have since found new uses. The data we collected remain useful and used to this day.

I subsequently diversified my research but have always been mindful of the value of collecting and collections and the joys that curiosity, exploration, discovery and wonder bring to so many people in so many different ways.

The study of history is much more than understanding the past – it’s about understanding and contextualising the present and preparing for the future.

The Unlocked Programme is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to make a major step change for collections-based research at a time when we need access to natural history data more than ever before.

Solutions from and for nature demand evidence for responsible decision-making, whether it’s around our own individual choices or the choices we need policymakers to effect on our behalf.

Each scientist stands on the shoulders of giants – we’re broadening and strengthening those shoulders for everyone to stand on. The centre will provide a platform to collaborate, innovate and contribute in tackling big societal and scientific challenges.

With 80 million specimens to share and unlock across our sites, and a commitment to collecting for the future, we’re genuinely contributing to the NHM’s mission of creating advocates for the planet for generations to come.

I’m excited about a step change in how our existing and future specimens will continue to inspire, enthral and contribute to a future where people and nature find a way to thrive.

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