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Natural Moves

14 October 2009

Stored within the newly opened Cocoon at London’s Natural History Museum are millions of priceless specimens that have just completed an intricate journey into their new home. Jane Fenwick reveals the complexities of this relocation project

THE OPENING LAST MONTH of the new Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum and the cocoon within it is the culmination of a 15 year project to upgrade the Museum’s facilities for both its specimens and its scientists. Put simply, the building that previously contained the Entomology Department - some six floors of butterflies, moths, beetles and more – had to be demolished to make way for the new building, and then both Entomology and Botany specimens put back into the new ‘cocoon’. In reality, this move project was highly complex and for the Museum it was its largest move in more than half a century.
The Natural History Museum has in total 70 million specimens, of which 28 million are insects and six million are plants. Parts of the collections dates back more than 300 years and include specimens collected by Darwin. The bicentenary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species are being celebrated this year. The new building named after him cost £78m.
The Darwin Centre, designed by architects, C .F. Møller ,takes the form of a large ‘silk cocoon’ protected by a glass atrium. At eight storeys high, the cocoon is the largest curving sprayed concrete structure in Europe at 60 metres long, 12 metres wide and walls 300mm thick. The cocoon now holds 17million entomological and three million botanical specimens in optimal temperature and humidity conditions. Furthermore the scientists working on these collections are now housed in modern facilities in the same building.
According to Mike Fitton, Science Project Director for phase two of the Darwin Centre project, it was in the mid 1990’s that plans for a new building for the Entomology Department began and this evolved into the Darwin Centre involving the zoology, entomology and botany collections.
“In 2002, the Zoology Department moved into phase one – having formerly been housed in an adjacent building,” he explained. “Their 22 million specimens are stored in spirit and this move was undertaken by the curators who pushed the trolleys of specimens directly from the old building into the new one. The Entomology Department was in a building to be demolished to make way for phase two and half of the collections went to the Museum's Origin of the Species gallery and half – mostly butterflies and moths – were sent to its store in South London.”
The main relocation project was divided into two stages – the move out and the move in – and each stage was tendered separately. Specialist relocation experts, NEXUS, won the phase one. Move Management Director at NEXUS, Ian Denton explained that they worked with the curators for more than six months before any specimens were moved. NEXUS found that the entomology collections which had evolved over hundreds of years were pinned into cork or wood in eight different sized drawers. “We developed a system of cages and trays that we trialled and tested with the Museum. The trays were made from shaped foam that was an exact fit to the different drawer types. We undertook a time and motion study to work out how long it would take to pack and unpack them.”
Key to the safe removal of these priceless specimens was the pre-planning that saw the development and procurement of the bespoke trolleys and polyethylene foam trays. The trolleys look much like supermarket delivery trolleys with tall metal sides and four wheels. The polyethylene trays fit snugly into the trolleys, each with a tray of specimens, and up to 20 trays in each trolley.The main risk to the specimens could come from vibration, Denton explained, since any impact could cause them damage or the fragile glass could break. Some drawers made during the Second World War were made of papermache with very thin glass. Many were in by collectors, and there was a collection of two million butterflies and moths, bequeathed by Lord Rothschild, housed in mahogany cabinets. These were heavy and had glass on the top andthe bottom to see the specimens from underneath. “Some had more valuable specimens than others but we treated it as if everything was a valuable specimen and applied the same techniques,” he said. Fitton commented, “The Museum’s collections are often thought of as largely Victorian, but in 1900 its entomology collection was just one million and it grew to 28 million during the 20th century.”
Clearly the curators needed more space but they also took this opportunity to reorganise the collections in their families in more logical sequences, and to assimilate collections they had not been able to locate together.
Geoff Martin, manager of the butterfly and moth collections and his team rearranged the entire collection. “We had no space to interchange the drawers before the move to get the collections in the correct order and parts of the collection were in different places in the Museum. We also took the opportunity to reduce the number of drawer sizes from eight to three – and finally to just two sizes. “
Jonathan Gregson, manager of the botany collections also welcomed the opportunity, “For more than 100 years, the 4,500 families in the botany collection had been arranged in a system that placed related families close to each other. But this system has been revised recently in an international collaboration using new molecular and DNA evidence. The collection now much better reflects our state of knowledge of the relationship between families of plants.”
The phase one move of the collections to new locations within the Museum or in South London took place between June and September 2005. The collections were partially assimilated as they were moved out. This meant that the NEXUS team had to understand where every single drawer was and what family it belonged to, and go around the collection to pick individual or groups of drawers in the right sequential order to be packed and unpacked at the destination. The NEXUS move management team developed a spreadsheet and produced a booklet for the packing teams to work to showing each drawer to collect from where in sequence, and where to locate it in sequence.
“In the intervening years before moving back, the curators decided what they wanted to put back where,” Denton explained. “Their staff reorganised a lot of the drawers, and moved entomology specimens from the non-standard to more standard drawers. A database was developed where the specimens are recorded by drawer, cabinet and row and the curators decided where the specimens should be placed in the ‘cocoon’s’ five floors of new cabinets. A table was prepared to show where each of the 78,000 drawers should go within the 82,000 spaces available leaving space of collection growth where it was needed. “
NEXUS bid again for the second stage of the relocation and won it. The systems and procedures developed in the first stage moved into action again. The spreadsheet was married up to the current location data of the collections and where they were to be moved to in the ‘cocoon’.
“The spreadsheet shows where each tray is to be found by cabinet and row and drawer number and where it has to be unloaded to,” explained Denton. “We printed out labels for the cages and the drawers so the move teams knew where to place it. When selecting different drawers from different areas, the pickers were directed to the correct row, the cabinet and the drawer. It meant they were jumping around the collections. A booklet of the spreadsheet data for each part of the move was produced showing the source and destination of each drawer of the entomology collection, and each shelf of botany specimens. It told them where to pack from and the label on the cage repeats that information.”
Denton continued: “There were up to 20 people a day involved in packing and moving the collections working at both ends of the move. There would be two people packing for each run of specimens and a porter taking the full cages away and bringing new cages back, and a van driver transporting the specimens to South London. We could have two teams running at a time with a Relocation Move Manager on site, but they had to be carefully scheduled so that they were not working in the same area because there was very limited space to move and pack the cages. NEXUS divided the collections up so that one team worked on one part of the collection and did not interfere with the second team working onanother part of the collection. “
The second stage move had one further complication. All the botany collection had to pass through a freezing process to destroy any pests. While the entomology collection needed only a visual inspection of each drawer, every item in the botany collection of pressed flowers, leaves, seeds and nuts needed to be frozen to at least –30oC for three days.
Three freezer containers were located in the Museum’s courtyard car park and service area. Each freezer took about 30 hours to bring it down to minus 35oC after being loaded full with trolleys. The specimens were left for 3 days at minus 35oC, while for the final two days of seven day cycle the temperature was gradually brought up in steps from –35oC to –20oC, to –5oC, through the point of freezing in a 10oC step –5oC to +5oC, and finally to a last step to +20oC which is just above the normal temperature of the new collections stores.
Months of work went into getting this process right for this scale of operation. As Denton explained, “The main concern has been about air in the freezer and in the specimens. We spent six months prior to the move working with the museum staff to develop a way to package the specimens, transport and freeze them. If they were packed too solid it took a long time to freeze the specimens in the middle. We developed a cage and perforated tray system that allows the air to circulate through the specimens so that they are all cooled rapidly and would defrost at even temperatures.”
Botany specimens are stored in card folders and sit on shelves about 5in tall. When taken from shelf on specially made wooden scoops, the packers wrapped the contents of each shelf in specially made plastic bags with an integral seal, gently removing most of the air in the process. These bags are then placed in the perforated trays with blocks of polystyrene to keep them in place. The trays were stacked 18 to a cage and loaded into the freezer – 36 cages at a time.
To add to the complexity of the process, the route from the gallery housing the botany collection was through a public area, down in a lift, along corridors in the basement and out to car park where the freezer is located. The service road is so uneven that the unfrozen fragile specimens are driven in their cages on a lorry to the service entrance at the back of the new Darwin Centre and then up in the lift to the 5th floor. When they have been unpacked and placed in the right row, cabinet and shelf according to the move spreadsheet, the empty cages are returned across a link bridge into the main building to the packing team in the botany herbarium.
“We had to get it right first time, “Denton explained. “The last thing we wanted was to have unloaded everything in the new Darwin Centre only to realise that there wasn’t enough space for something and then have to go back and unpack and move and shuffle the collection up again.”
This pre-planning and attention to detail paid off. Commenting on the success of both move phases, Fitton said, “One thing that impressed us with NEXUS was the level of project management they had. This was important because it has enabled us to do a major reorganisation of the collections at the same time as the move. This saved a lot of curatorial time and duplication of effort, and was of much less risk to the collection. We had such confidence in them that we could afford a ‘light touch’. We could leave them to get on with the job without having to have lots of our people looking over their shoulders. We had monitoring and quality assurance in place but this sometimes worked both ways with the NEXUS move people sometimes picking up our people doing something wrong.”
Visitors now have an opportunity to see into the cocoon where the collections are in stored 3.3km of new standardised cabinets at 17oC and 45 percent relative humidity. As entomology collection manager Geoff Martin commented, “These are world class storage conditions. We have rearranged the whole collection and have space for expansion. These are now probably the best conditions in the world.

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