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Unpacking 100,000 objects

Go behind the scenes with Collection Unpacking Assistants Esme & Holly as they celebrate unpacking 100,000 items from the Science Museum Group Collection in their new home.

Over the last year and a half, we (the unpacking team) have worked hard to unpack and find the right shelf for 100,000 historic items which have been transported from their old home in Blythe House, west London, to our collection management facility at the National Collections Centre in Wiltshire.

After being carefully packed by the team at Blythe House, the objects are loaded onto large trucks and make their journey to the National Collections Centre.

When they arrive at their new home, the objects are temporarily housed on a large coloured grid before being placed on the right shelf (more on that process in this blog post).

Developing the best process to safely and quickly unpack and finding the perfect home for each object has been a challenging, but exciting, task. So reaching the momentous milestone of 100,000 objects unpacked is a target we have been looking forward to for quite some time.

Objects waiting to be unpacked in the collection management facility at the National Collections Centre

These 100,000 objects are about a third of the total which will ultimately call the collection management facility home by the time it opens for public tours in 2024.

The objects unpacked so far span centuries and subjects, including Biochemistry, Acoustics and Telecoms. Two of our favourite objects that have recently been unpacked illustrate the diversity of the collection.

A small pottery oil lamp, probably Egyptian or Romano-Egyptian.
A small pottery oil lamp, probably Egyptian or Romano-Egyptian.

The first is this Egyptian oil lamp. Oil lamps were used for thousands of years for both religious and domestic purposes. They could be either elaborately decorated or kept plain and could also have handles added so they could be carried around.

These are later examples, as can be seen from their closed design. They have a small hole for the wick and larger opening for oil to be added, preventing spillage.

RoboThespian 3 robot actor
RoboThespian 3 robot actor

The second object is RoboThespian, a life-sized humanoid robot actor developed by British company, Engineered Arts.

This robotic actor was the first commercially produced full-sized humanoid robot and can be programmed to speak in multiple languages, including Klingon. It can even perform Singing in the Rain!

It was one of 16 working robots in the Science Museum’s Robots exhibition which opened at the museum in 2017, before embarking on a UK and international tour.

To celebrate unpacking 100,000 objects – a huge milestone for us – we gathered the team together for a photo.

The Collection Unpacking team celebrate unpacking the 100,000th object in its new home.
The Collection Unpacking team celebrate unpacking the 100,000th object in its new home.
L-R: Lorna Hetherington, Holly Fairbairn, Catherine Goodwin, Archie Lane, Esme Mahoney-Phillips, Becky Smith, Sabrina Ruffino, Tom Dealey, Mark Day, Craig Allsebrook, Oren Fowkes, Daniel Vincent, Elliott Dermody.

Here we are, pictured next to the 100,000th object we unpacked – an elaborately decorated wooden chair set with 12 steel blades, known as a ‘Dragon Chair’.

Made between 1701-1900, it was originally thought to be a torture chair but was actually used by Chinese mediums (Tangki) whilst channelling the spirit of a god. It was believed that remaining unharmed when sitting on the blades illustrated the power of the god over human flesh.

We’ll be sharing more stories as we unpack the rest of the collection in its new home. If you want to see some of these objects for yourself then you are in luck, from 2024 you’ll be able to visit the collection’s new home for public tours and research visits.