9 August 2023

Relocating Kew's herbarium for the future of our collections

RBG Kew is exploring building a new research facility at Thames Valley Science Park (TVSP) for our vast collection of preserved plant specimens.

A digitiser is scanning a herbarium specimen containing multiple dried plants

Biological specimens are the cornerstone of biodiversity research and conservation. 

At a time when 2 in 5 plant species are estimated to be threatened, the value of botanical collections – physical records of which species have occurred when and where – can help us predict responses to climate change or identify biological molecules useful to humans such as drugs and nutrients. 

We are proud to host one of the world’s largest herbarium collections, with about 7 million specimens collected over centuries of exploration. These collections are intensively studied by our staff and students, as well as by hundreds of visiting national and international researchers each year. 

Our specimens include representatives of species, and of genetically distinct populations within species, that no longer exist in nature – making them simply irreplaceable.  

While our current infrastructure for hosting these botanical collections was ground-breaking when first opened in 1877, we are now facing two major challenges. 

Firstly, the increasing risks of fire, flood and pests. The constraints imposed by our historic buildings do not allow us to put in place mitigations that guarantee the protection of our specimens against those risks, nor to deal with those risks should they occur. The tragic destruction of some major biodiversity collections in recent years in catastrophic fires, for example, at Brazil’s National Museum and the Butantã Foundation, reminds us that this is a real possibility for any organisation, anywhere.  

Secondly, we are running out of space. A new herbarium wing has been added every 3-4 decades to cope with increasing volumes of specimens, but, even if we filled every space of our current buildings – leaving inadequate capacity for increasing numbers of scientists and visitors, image digitisation and collaborative workspaces – we would only be postponing the problem of finding a truly long-term solution. 

View of the rooms within Kew's Wing C
Kew's Herbarium specimens date back over 300 years © RBG Kew

Looking at solutions  

For over 5 years, like many other large collections-based institutions around the world, Kew has been exploring options to relocate some of our botanical collections. 

There are several compelling reasons for this, but the primary aim is to ensure the care and usability of these collections, as well as ensuring our long-term capacity for growth. Demand for Kew’s expertise has never been higher, and the need for a new herbarium sits alongside demand for new laboratories, glasshouse space, and facilities for public engagement. 

Kew’s management have worked extensively to propose a solution to meet these needs. Doing so at Kew Gardens would be extremely difficult given the age of the existing buildings and space and planning constraints. 

Therefore in 2021, after more than 2 years consulting with architects, planners, engineers, stakeholders and staff, the Board of Trustees decided to seek an alternative site for a new facility to house our herbarium collection.  

Over the past year we have evaluated a number of possible sites for the new herbarium. Rigorous criteria were used to examine over 20 possible sites close to London. These included distance from Kew, transportation options, and surrounding infrastructure both for staff and visiting researchers.

In June, our Trustees reviewed the findings and confirmed their intention to relocate our herbarium collections to Thames Valley Science Park (TVSP) in Reading. This is subject to further feasibility studies and to agreeing terms on the purchase of the site and is further contingent on securing funding for delivering the project.   

Relocating this collection is critical to fulfilling the strategic priorities as set out in Kew’s Manifesto for Change and the obligations we have both to protect and preserve our collections and to ensure their long-term utility to national and international researchers.  

Modern, environmentally controlled buildings will allow us to create optimal conditions for long-term preservation of the collections, including cooler and drier conditions that reduce specimen degradation and pest outbreaks, and fire-suppression systems that minimise damage should a fire ever ignite.  

If we don’t make plans now to move these collections, there is a grave risk they will be lost to future generations. 

Our plans will preserve these irreplaceable collections and maintain access for our visitors through high-quality consultation spaces. 

A critical component of the project is our commitment to invest in the skills and training required to build the next generation of outstanding curators and taxonomists needed to deliver our vital research.  

Your questions answered: Relocating Kew's Herbarium

Person's hands are seen resting on a herbarium specimen
Kew's Herbarium holds millions of dried plant specimens ©RBG Kew

The TVSP opportunity  

At TVSP, there are opportunities for us to work closely with several collaborators including the University of Reading (which owns the park), the British Museum (which has already constructed a comprehensive facility for its archaeological research collections), and the Natural History Museum, which will be moving a large part of its biodiversity collections to the site. 

The process of securing funding, designing and building the facility, and moving the collections is expected to take 5-7 years. 

During this time, Kew’s leadership is committed to continuing to engage with staff, as well as national and international stakeholders with the project, whose input will be critical to creating a world-leading centre that accelerates biodiversity research and conservation and increases access to our collections by researchers worldwide.  

A student and a scientist crouch around a work area where plants are being pressed for storage
Kew MSc student, Maria Chavez presses a specimen in the field under the supervision of a local guide. © Richard Gianfrancesco, RBG Kew

Transforming Kew Science - three projects 

The relocation of the herbarium collection to a new, state-of-the-art home is one of three major projects being delivered by Kew Science. 


The first is the digitisation of all our herbarium and fungarium specimens. 

At a cost of an estimated £28m and the largest science project in Kew’s history, work is underway to produce high-resolution images of our approximately 8.5 million herbarium and fungarium specimens and should be completed by 2026. 

All images and information produced by Kew will be integrated digitally with other digitised UK natural history collections through the Distributed System of Scientific Collections, creating a single digitised collection of up to c. 21m specimens; and globally through the Global Biodiversity Information Facility

Herbarium relocation and Science Quarter development

The second stage of our transformation is the relocation of the herbarium, described above, enabling us to protect these collections for future generations and allow the creation of new science and collaboration infrastructure at the Kew Gardens site, centred around the historic wings of the existing herbarium building.  

Moving the herbarium collections will unlock the development of the existing herbarium buildings at Kew Gardens to create a new ‘Science Quarter’.  This is critical to the future of Kew’s science as it will provide additional capacity, including new laboratories, education facilities, seminar rooms and improved workspaces for our staff and students. 

The ‘Science Quarter’ will bring different scientific disciplines together and create space for partner organisations to work alongside Kew’s scientists. It will also enable us to open these spaces to visitors to the garden, supporting greater public engagement in collections research. 

Development of the ‘Science Quarter’ is essential if we are to continue to attract world-class scientists, particularly in the competitive fields of data science, genomics and natural capital.


And finally, at Wakehurst, where we hold a collection of over 2.4 billion living seeds in the Millennium Seed Bank, we are building new nurseries to unlock the scientific and conservation potential of our seed collections.  

Kew scientist in coat holding jar of seeds
Kew scientist in the vaults of the Millennium Seed Bank © RBG Kew.

Looking ahead 

We are at a turning point in Kew’s history. We believe that digitising our plant and fungal specimens, building a new state-of-the art herbarium to care for and provide access to our collections, and creating new science facilities at Kew and Wakehurst, will maximise the quality and impact of our science.

If we are successful in securing funding for the new herbarium, it will represent the biggest investment in botanical science and conservation in the history of our organisation at a time when our work to halt biodiversity loss could not be more crucial.

Person's hands are seen resting on a herbarium specimen

Want to find out more about our new Herbarium project?

Here's everything you need to know about the relocation of Kew's Herbarium.

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