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The great museum move

14 August 09 05:36 GMT

By Rebecca Morelle
Science reporter, BBC News

Moving house is thought to be one of life's most stressful events.

But if that's the case, the stress levels for moving museums must be off the scale.

Staff at London's Natural History Museum are currently in the process of shifting more than 20 million plant and insect specimens from its world-famous collections into a giant, eight-storey-high cocoon, which sits at the heart of the new Darwin Centre.

The building opens in September, and it will give the public a chance to get a glimpse at a part of the museum that is normally hidden way behind closed doors.

But moving the collections is an enormous operation.

Geoff Martin is the collections manager for Lepidoptera - the order of insects that includes moths and butterflies.

And over the next few weeks, he is responsible for getting about nine million specimens from the museum's storage facility in South London, over to the new building, which is at the famous South Kensington site.

He told BBC News: "We've got about 80,000 drawers of butterflies and moths to move. And the logistics are tricky."

But before this mammoth move got under way, the collections' managers took the opportunity to take stock and rearrange their collections.

Mr Martin explained that advances in genetics meant some of the taxonomical classifications of specimens had changed over the decades - meaning that in some cases the wrong moths and butterflies were grouped together.

He said: "Now we can rearrange our whole collection to a more modern classification.

"It's rather a big spring clean - it has been overdue by about 150 years."

Once the collections had been rearranged, the job of transporting them was been able to get underway.

Every drawer has to be meticulously labelled, logged in a database, and then packed up by a team of porters to begin its journey a few miles north to its new home.

And when you have specimens in your collection such as insects collected by Darwin or species that have been extinct for hundreds of years, keeping track of exactly what is moving and where it is moving to is key.

Mr Martin said: "We've now got 23,000 drawers in. A couple of moths may have fallen off their pins - but that's it, and that's pretty impressive."

Museum menace

One specimen that the team is keen not to import to the new storage facility is the museum beetle.

In the wild, these tiny insects eat the remains of animals, but in a museum they can reduce a drawer of important specimens to dust in a matter of weeks.

Johannes Vogel, keeper of botany, is responsible for moving a three-million-strong plant collection into the Darwin Centre - and unwanted insects are a particular worry.

He said: "We are providing quite a big nutritional resource, so to speak - and the insects are quite keen to get their jaws on it."

So every single plant species being ferried into the new building is having a two week stay in a freezer - a giant house-sized freezer - to kill any off any unwanted pests.

And after this, once the specimens have been carefully unloaded into their new storage rooms, the researchers are taking every precaution to keep the collections in tip-top, bug-free condition.

The curved walls of the cocoon contain no corners for the bugs to hide in and the specimens will be housed in 3.3km of metal cabinets instead of the older wooden ones, where they are more susceptible to museum beetle attack. All of the spaces are light and climate controlled.

Dr Vogel said: "What we've done is to secure the collections' future in terms of the conditions under which we store them."

Final countdown

The new cocoon building marks the second and final phase of the Darwin Centre project. The plant and insect collections join the tanks and bottles from the zoology collection, which was moved to the centre in 2002.

The aim of the project is to give the public an insight into a part of the museum that they would never normally get to see.

Paul Bowers, a project director for the Darwin Centre, said: "In the cocoon, people can journey through this space around the top three floors, looking into research laboratories, looking at specimen preparations. They'll see our historic collections, they'll see our scientists at work and they'll see these storage areas."

He added: "Most of our buildings, historically, have been exhibition spaces or research spaces or storage spaces.

"What we have done with the Darwin Centre project is to create a building that wraps all of those things together."

As the last few million specimens start their journey towards the cocoon and with only a few weeks before the centre opens on 15 September, Mr Bowers said he expects the final countdown to be a little hectic.

He told BBC News: "The last bit is always a challenge. But we are definitely on track.

"I'm just looking forward to seeing the first visitor go in and see our cocoon - that is going to be the highlight for me."

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