In recent developments, the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London has initiated a major project, transferring a significant portion of its collection to a new facility in partnership with the University of Reading.

This ambitious endeavor aims to relocate approximately 28 million specimens to the Thames Valley Science Park in Shinfield, Berkshire. This move, part of the museum’s Unlocked Programme, represents the most substantial relocation of its collections since the 1880s and is slated for completion in 2027, with the facility expected to be fully operational by 2031​​.

The decision to move has sparked a mix of reactions within the scientific and academic communities. Critics argue that relocating such a vast number of specimens away from the museum’s central London location could potentially diminish the NHM’s role in scientific research and education.

Concerns have been raised about the impact of this move on the museum’s ability to engage in its core mission of studying living diversity and extinction. A letter to The Times, signed by 30 academics, including former museum staff, questioned the rationale behind not choosing a London-based university for the new center and highlighted a shift in the museum’s focus over the years.

They noted a significant decrease in the proportion of staff dedicated to collections care and research, expressing fears that this move could further exacerbate the museum’s detachment from its foundational scientific endeavors​​.

Defending its decision, the NHM emphasizes the move as a strategic step towards modernizing its facilities and enhancing its research capabilities. The new center, according to the museum, will not only offer state-of-the-art storage and research facilities, including digitization and imaging suites, molecular and analytical laboratories, and cryo-facilities, but also free up space at the South Kensington site for public galleries currently used for storage​​​​.

The museum’s executive director of science highlighted the publication of 718 new research papers in the previous year, underscoring the museum’s ongoing commitment to scientific research and its role in addressing global challenges like biodiversity loss and climate change.

Moreover, the museum argues that the move to Reading will facilitate better care, digitization, and global sharing of its collections, aiming to enhance global scientific collaboration​​.

This transition is seen as a critical investment in the infrastructure of natural history collections, aligning with the UK government’s broader strategy to bolster science, research, and development. The government’s additional funding of £20 million, bringing the total investment to £201 million, underscores the significance placed on this initiative.

The NHM and its partners believe that the new center will play a pivotal role in solving pressing global issues such as food security, biodiversity preservation, and climate change mitigation​​.

The debate surrounding the NHM’s move reflects broader questions about the role of natural history museums in the 21st century, balancing between their traditional functions of collection and research and the need to innovate and adapt to contemporary scientific and environmental challenges.

As the museum embarks on this significant transition, it remains to be seen how these changes will influence its ability to fulfill its mission and contribute to global scientific endeavors.

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