Polstore – Workshop, Workplace, Museum & Archive Storage Systems

Natural History Museum: The Palaeontology Project

Working with a clean sheet of paper, an empty room, an existing collection (albeit in two separate locations) and an exacting, driven team from the Natural History Museum, we have enjoyed the challenge of producing a scheme of cabinets to suit their current and future needs. At Polstore we specialise in working with the teams and individuals that actually use the equipment, whilst working with the Museum’s project managers to ensure that a commercially viable solution is provided. Dealing directly with the team involved in the monumental task of moving and caring for this vast collection of specimens, has allowed us to gain a unique insight into the needs of the team and
their collection. With this in mind, we were able to draw up a shortlist of ‘must haves’ and ‘must definitely not haves’ for the project.

As a collection is never really complete at any point in time, it was essential that the scheme would accommodate their current collection, whilst making allowances for any future additions. After a short while working with the team and running through every listed item in every location, it became very clear that one size and design of cabinet was never going to meet their needs. After working with the Palaeontology team to draw up a list of their requirements, we established a basic cabinet unit size, which allowed the scheme to fit uniformly onto mobile bases. The mobile base layout was essential to condense the two separate collection locations into the same room for
the first time. We then spent a great deal of time working with the team on the room layout, so that the various sizes of cabinets could be arranged to contain the collection within their own taxonomical groups. With the layout decided, we could then begin the cabinet design.

The basic cabinet design was to include a near air tight seal (that could be replaced if it became worn in the future), double interlocking doors and minimal closed off or dead spaces that could harbour pests. We were also prohibited from using any wet seals or adhesives, as this could prove harmful to the collection. Working from the ground up and using design enhancements from the scheme we previously installed within the Botany Collection, we designed a completely new cabinet, incorporating all of the team’s requests within the design, rather than adding their specific requirements to our existing cabinets.

The final detail, that had us scratching our heads, was the door handle. We literally scoured the planet to find a handle that would suit all of the team’s needs. On finding that such an item wasn’t commercially available, we found a supplier that could incorporate certain design features of different standard handles, into one hybrid unit, without the need for expensive custom tooling.

The next challenge was an exercise in cost saving and future proofing. The museum needed to re-use the existing 1,400+ wooden collection trays, to save money, but needed the racking within the cabinet to be flexible enough to allow them to be replaced with a more museum friendly steel tray at a later date (and also for future additions). With the degree of dimensional tolerance established on these existing ‘handmade’ wooden drawers, a rail system was engineered to not only accommodate the variance in size, but that required no mechanical fixings at all. This allowed the museum to reconfigure the units easily and without the need for hand tools (as per modern museum standards).

Once the specimens in the wooden trays were accommodated, our attention was then turned to items stored on shelves. The existing wooden shelves that the museum used were not suitable to be retained for the project, so we worked on the design of a new metal shelf that would meet their load requirements, whilst allowing the shelf to be extended. Now, not only are you able to remove the specimens safer and easier, it also allows you to reduce the vertical gap between the shelves.

This vastly increases the storage capacity and on a rough calculation we estimated that this would increase their spare ‘future’ storage capacity by around 30-35%, something the team was very happy about. The shelf also needed to contain an integral handle/label holder without sharp exposed edges.

Now that the standard units had been designed, we then needed to look at a range of larger units, that all needed to be of a similar appearance to the single units. One of the key constraints to these cabinets was the low door height into the building. With this is mind a ‘knock down’ unit was designed that could be shipped in sections and assembled in situ on the mobile base, whilst still retaining a near air tight seal and height adjustable shelving.

The final part of the project was the large slab storage area (the largest single cabinet we have made to date). After establishing a location within the room, we set about devising an enclosed shelving system. The design was steel clad on all sides and roof with two independent sets of modern tri-folding doors, providing the required seal over the large front area.

Behind the doors was a wide bay of heavy duty shelving. The shelves contained built in sealed bearing surfaces that allow the specimens to be gently rolled in and out as required, whilst ensuring adequate support at all times and removing the risk of accidental damage.

"We have enjoyed being part of the team within the Natural History Museum, London, to produce a truly special scheme for this most prestigious of project."