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By Matt Moore on

Happy Birthday NCC

Matt Moore, Head of the National Collections Centre, reflects on the history and future for the Science Museum Group’s largest site.

Forty years ago, on 1 May 1980, the organisation we now know as the Science Museum Group expanded onto a former WW2 airfield at Wroughton in Wiltshire.

Four decades on, we are nearing conclusion of construction work on the Group’s new flagship collection management facility (Building ONE), a significant milestone in our vision for the National Collections Centre (NCC for short).

The site originally formed part of a much larger military complex that included living quarters for aircrew, the main airfield and a modern hospital.

Of note was the TB and Infectious Diseases Block in which iron lungs (similar to those in the collection stored at the NCC and those on display at the Science Museum) were used to combat the effects of Polio.

In 1979, the site’s association with the RAF (as No 15 Maintenance Unit) came to an end. The Navy continued to operate from the site for a few more years – basing their Royal Naval Air Yard in the South East of the site until 1992, servicing helicopters.

By then over 7000 aircraft had passed through the site, which saw active service during both the Second World War and later in the Falklands conflict.

In May 1980, we obtained the ‘keys’ to the site and began to relocate objects in the national collection to the hangars.

Lockheed 10A Electra, pictured in the 1980s outside a hangar at the National Collections Centre. The aircraft is now on display in the Making the Modern World gallery at the Science Museum.

Among the first to arrive were aircraft: the Douglas DC3, Lockheed Electra (now in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery); and the Boeing 247D Aircraft (flown to site by Desmond ‘Dizzy’ Addicott on 3 August 1980).

Over the following 12 years the hangars gradually filled up with large objects including one of the earliest autonomous vehicles, a modified 1960s Citroen DS19 which is now in the Driverless: Who is in control? exhibition at the Science Museum.

In 1992 a new climate-controlled store, the ‘A’ store, was built to accommodate 16,000 more objects from the collection, in particular those in need of more rigorous environmental conditions for their long-term care and preservation.

Until this point, we had relied on commercial sites to store our collection, but the idea of creating a central home for objects not on display in our museums had begun to take hold.

An aerial view of the National Collections Centre before construction began on Building ONE.

Over the next two decades various projects helped redevelop the site.

In 2007 the Science Museum Library and Archives was relocated to purpose-built facilities at the NCC, which now houses over 1.5 million rare books, archive materials and journals.

By 2012 the demand for improved collection storage was growing. The Science Museum Group had now come into existence (with the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester joining the family that year) and the decision was taken to refurbish the C1 hangar.

This enabled objects cared for by the National Railway Museum in York and the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford to be moved from commercial storage to the Wiltshire site.

The idea of the National Collections Centre, providing centralised and sustainable storage for the Science Museum Group Collection (and some other major museums), was now taking shape.

Construction of the multi-award winning Hemcrete store quickly followed. It was developed as part of a growing focus around sustainable construction, which is now a core principle for the Group (you can read more on our sustainability blog).

Part of the Hemcrete store. A sustainably constructed, climate controlled museum store built from Hemp and Lime panels on a steel frame. The structure provides reduced humidity storage for the collection.

By 2015 it was clear that the Group needed new facilities for storage, conservation work and to help share more of our ever-growing national collection with the public.

Plans for the new collection management facility (known as Building ONE) began to crystallise, part of an ambitious project to study, digitise and share more of our vast collection than ever before.

We are already digitising much of the collection at pace, with hundreds of new photographs and collection insights published online each month.

Soon after, our site gained its new name: National Collections Centre.

Construction of the new facility began in 2019 and, once complete, Building ONE will become home to more than 300,000 historic objects from the Science Museum Group Collection, consolidating objects at Blythe House in London and many large objects already at the National Collections Centre.

Building ONE will provide unprecedented access to the Science Museum Group Collection, for curators, researchers, schools and the public, when it opens in 2023.

Our understanding of the Science Museum Group Collection continues to grow and the future of the National Collections Centre as an accessible collections hub is now secured.

However, this is only one part of the story.

Our focus on sustainability and biodiversity at the National Collections Centre is also key to developing the site.

We have planted 43,000 native trees, and committed to planting many more over the next decade, established wildflower grasslands and provided spaces for nature to thrive.

Building on our ambitions for a low carbon future we committed 183-acres of our unused land for a 50 MW solar farm. When it opened in 2016, it was one of the largest in the UK.

Aerial view of the solar farm at the National Collections Centre in Wiltshire.

We continue to enhance the National Collections Centre with sustainability in mind. Water for our offices is heated by the Sun and we use hydrogen and electric cars to navigate the 545-acre site (many electric cars can be found in the collection).

Building ONE will have a further 1MW of solar PV installed on the roof, dedicated electric car charging and will capture rainwater to create a large pond encircled by Clouts Wood (a Site of Special Scientific Interest).

We also recently committed to planting another thousand trees each year for the next decade.

Tree planting at the National Collections Centre
Tree planting at the National Collections Centre.

Our vision for the National Collections Centre includes creating a hub for science and engineering research and development. Our work with electric and autonomous vehicle developers, the renewable energy industry, film and media companies, and universities at the site is becoming ever more important.

We see a future for the site where organisations co-habit with the Science Museum Group Collection, providing their research teams with a source of inspiration and the facilities in which to experiment and innovate.

This vibrant and rejuvenated National Collections Centre is a place where people can share ideas, unleash their imagination and ignite their curiosity.

In short, this former WW2 airfield is very much part of the UK’s future as well as its history.

We’ll leave you with these views from the National Collections Centre.

Visitors study an object in C1 at the NCC
SMG staff study an object in the C1 store at the National Collections Centre.
Parachute used by Tim Peake’s Soyuz is laid out at the National Collections Centre for condition checking.
A view of a hangar and newly planted trees at the National Collections Centre.
Building ONE under construction at the National Collections Centre in December 2019.