As the first of over 300,000 objects begin arriving at the National Collections Centre in Wiltshire as part of the Science Museum Group’s ambitious collection move, Collections Unpacking Assistants Esme, Charlotte, Holly and Tessa take us behind the scenes to discover what it takes to relocate these historic items to a new home.
Behind the Scenes at the National Collections Centre
The National Collections Centre (NCC) is massive! It consists of nine former aircraft hangars which are used to store large objects from the Science Museum Group Collection. It is also home to our brand-new storage facility, which has been built to house over 300,000 objects being moved from Blythe House in West London to us here at the NCC. In the process, these objects are being studied, photographed and packed.
The vast new building also acts as our home base. We are a team of thirteen, made up of eight Collections Unpacking Assistants, two Collections Decant Supervisors, two Conservators and a Storage Systems Assistant. So far, over 35,000 objects have been unpacked from several different collections such as Transport, Pictorial and Printing.
The unpacking team’s work begins in the office, where we are briefed on plans for the day. We then grab our protective gear and head to the store to assess, unpack and redisplay the huge and diverse array of objects arriving from Blythe House.
A typical day will often include a large new delivery of objects, which we then need to safely unpack. Items can arrive in a variety of container types, from small boxes to large metal cage-like trolleys and pallets.
We scan batches of objects as they are unloaded and transport them to a vast chessboard-like holding space, where the items are given twenty-four hours to acclimatise to their new surroundings. The temperature and humidity of the store is carefully monitored to ensure the best possible conditions for the objects in the collection.
Once the objects have acclimatised, they are relocated to an unpacking zone where we can begin the unpacking process.
We always wear nitrile gloves for this part, to protect the objects from the oils our skin secretes, but also to protect us from any hazardous materials.
As part of its focus on sustainability, the Science Museum Group has just begun recycling gloves with TerraCycle and is also researching bio-degradable gloves. Sometimes other PPE is also required, such as goggles when handling glass objects that have the potential to shatter.
Before we open up the boxes and cages, we scan each container to digitally check our records for condition ratings and hazards. Once opened, we give each object a visual check, ensuring it does not have any unidentified hazards and that its condition has not deteriorated since it was packed, as well as determining whether there are any vulnerable or moving parts that need to be supported.
We then move the objects to the most suitable storage type. This could be art mesh (a grid for hanging framed artworks on the wall), cabinets with shelves or trays, pallet racking, plan presses (cabinets with multiples drawers for protecting 2D objects from light damage), pigeonholes, freestanding space or short/long span shelves.
Long span shelves can hold objects that weigh up to 459kg. The objects that belong on these shelves, like ship models, hot air balloon baskets and flight suits in large crates often require the whole team, lifting pallet trucks and sliders.
Once an object is physically in its new location, we scan the barcodes of the storage facility and the object and select ‘unpack’. Once processed, our scanner makes a satisfying ping informing us our job is done – at least for that object! (Now just another 265,000 objects to go!)
To give you an idea of the types of items held at the new storage facility, and the breadth of the collection, we thought we would share a couple of our favourite objects so far.
The Wheatstone Typewriter
This wonderful object, though it looks rather like a miniature piano, is actually a specialist form of typewriter. Made by Sir Charles Wheatstone – an English physicist and the pioneer of the electric telegraph, a forerunner of the telephone – between 1855 and 1860, it was used for the swift printing of telegrams.
This is the Roboreptile which is one of the more contemporary objects currently in the new building. It was a popular toy, acquired by the museum in 2006, and is one of a selection of robotic pets in the collection, including a Teksta V.2 robotic puppy and a Tamagotchi.
The new facility at the National Collections Centre is due to open in 2024 for tours and research, allowing people to see 80% of the Science Museum Group Collection all under one roof for the very first time.