FAQs

All your questions about the Society, its work, history and the campaign

What does the Linnean Society do?

Founded in 1788, the Linnean Society of London is the oldest active society dedicated to the natural world. Today, the vision of a planet where nature is understood, valued and protected is central to the Society’s work that aims to inform, involve and inspire people of all ages and backgrounds in nature and its significance.

The Society’s home at Burlington House acts as an international hub for research, discovery and debate. It was purpose-built for the Society’s charitable activities and is an important educational and historical resource for the nation. It was at a meeting of the Society in Burlington House where the first public presentation of the theory of evolution was held, and the Society continues to facilitate ideas that will help find solutions to the biggest challenges our society and the planet face today.

The Society is estimated to contribute £8.2 million of public benefit to the UK every year, in part realised through educational resources, regular tours, conferences and a range of lectures every month. Before the pandemic, the Society celebrated hosting a record-number of events at Burlington House, including lunchtime and evening lectures, day meetings, and varied scientific workshops for students and teachers, as well as art workshops and guided tours of the building and collections for students and the general public.

In addition to this, the Society provides free learning resources and runs a programme for schools in underserved areas (BioMedia Meltdown).

Central to the Society’s activities are its historically and internationally important Arts Council England (ACE)-designated collections, comprising biological specimens, manuscripts, archives, books and journals, specially housed in purpose-built accommodation in Burlington House. These provide a rich source of information for researchers, students and the public alike. It is also the base for a global Fellowship of 3,000 professional scientists, amateurs, artists and historians with a keen interest in natural history.

Why should I support the campaign?

As intended by the vision of the Government in the late 19th century, the co-location of the Linnean Society, the Geological Society, and the Society of Antiquaries has allowed us to make significant contributions to the UK’s economy and society together over the last 145 years.

Burlington House acts as an international hub for research, discovery and debate. It was purpose-built for the Linnean Society’s charitable activities and has been refurbished and adapted to hold its many educational activities, safeguard its world-renowned and Arts Council England (ACE)-Designated heritage collections, and bring together academia and other enthusiasts about the natural world with a diverse public.

However, over a period of just six years, the Linnean Society’s rent at Burlington House has risen by 3,000%. As a not-for-profit organisation, the Society cannot continue to pay rent escalating at this rate long term, and as such, it is imperative that we find an affordable solution with Government. We do not have the capital to acquire an alternative space and would struggle to pay the higher rents now anticipated at Burlington House, or cover the costs of an alternative space in London.

The only affordable option may be to house the specimen collections and archives in storage facilities, effectively separating them from staff and users. This would significantly limit the Society's ability to deliver on its charitable objectives and threaten the value it generates for the UK, which has been estimated at £8.2 million per year by PwC.

Separating the Society from the international hub of research and discovery at Burlington House would also threaten the UK’s position on the world stage. The dispersal of the co-located learned societies, their collections, libraries and archives would inevitably limit the combined contributions made to research and discovery for both national and global benefit.

In addition, a move away from Burlington House could diminish the Society’s network and support for its valuable work for the UK. The Society will lose its close ties to the other important biological and historical collections and associated research expertise in London (at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Natural History Museum, the Wellcome Trust and world-class universities such as Imperial College London, Queen Mary University, King’s College London and University College London), its political, diplomatic and media influence, and its international status as an awarder of medals and other awards for distinguished achievements in natural history.

How did the Society end up in this situation?

In 2005, our tenure at Burlington House was formalised through a lease, with rent agreed on a non-profit basis—to cover (the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s) capital charge and depreciation— and understood then to rise slowly to market rent over 80 years. The government invested in the repair of the fabric of the buildings, while the societies at Burlington House invested in updating the interiors. The Linnean Society itself, with the help of Fellows and generous donors, invested over £2 million in improvements at Burlington House, including secure and climate-controlled storage for specimen collections, renovation of derelict rooms in the central tower, improvements to accessibility with the installation of a lift (suitable for disabled individuals) and an additional environmentally-controlled room for its unique archives.

However, from around 2014, Government accounting policy changed and Burlington House began to be treated as an investment property. While a lengthy arbitration in the years following confirmed that the Government's interpretation of the formula for setting the rent was legally correct, the market value of property in the West End soared from 2014 and, as a consequence (unforeseen back in 2005), the rent more than doubled between 2014 and 2015 alone. The Linnean Society has paid escalating rent ever since (with the cost rising by 3,000% over a six-year period, 2012 to 2018). The Society cannot afford to continue to pay rent escalating at this rate, which makes it imperative that we find a workable and affordable solution to secure the home of the international hub for research, discovery and debate at Burlington House.

Lease History Linnean Society Burlington House

What will happen to the Society if an affordable solution is not agreed?

The Linnean Society faces a significant threat in the absence of a sustainable agreement for Burlington House. The Society does not have the capital to acquire an equivalent alternative space and would struggle to pay the higher rent anticipated at Burlington House, or cover the costs of an alternative space in London.

The only affordable option may be to house the specimen collections and archives in storage facilities, effectively separating them from staff and users. This would significantly limit the Society's ability to deliver on its charitable objectives and threaten the value it generates for the UK (estimated to be £8.2 million each year).

How can I support the campaign?

We are asking the Government to help the societies find an affordable arrangement that will enable the Linnean Society, and its co-located neighbouring societies, to continue, and further enhance, the value delivered to the public each year from Burlington House.

An affordable and sustainable tenancy for the Linnean Society will help to maintain the UK’s world-leading position in the scientific understanding of nature, its management and conservation. This will help to ensure that we can meet the biggest challenges facing our planet today.

We are asking those in support of keeping the Society at Burlington House to help raise further awareness of the campaign by retweeting @LinneanSociety, and by using the hashtag #LinneanAtBH. You can also help raise awareness by writing to your local MP to ask for their support to help the Linnean Society stay at Burlington House. See our How You Can Help for further information on finding your MP and some suggested bullet points to use.

What will happen if the Society has to move?

Housing the specimen collections and archives in storage facilities, and effectively separating them from staff and users, would significantly limit the Society's ability to deliver on its charitable objectives and threaten the value it generates for the UK (estimated to be £8.2 million each year). It would also:

  • Separate the Society from the international hub of research and discovery at Burlington House and threaten the UK’s position on the world-stage. Dispersal of the co-located learned societies, their collections, libraries and archives would inevitably limit the combined contributions made to research and discovery for both national and global benefit.

  • Dismantle the historical and cultural context of the study of natural history in the UK. The Society's collections represent the beginning of the formal, scientific documentation of the natural world. Their co-location in the heart of London in their historical home is important for not only science but for the wider public in understanding how the documentation of nature is rooted in, and depends upon history and culture.

  • Diminish the Society’s network that supports its valuable work for the UK. The Society will lose its close ties to the other important biological and historical collections and associated research expertise in London (at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Natural History Museum, the Wellcome Trust and world-class universities such as Imperial College London, Queen Mary University, King’s College London and University College London), its political, diplomatic and media influence, and its international status as an awarder of medals and other awards for distinguished achievements in understanding and communicating about the natural world.
What are you asking the government to do?

We are asking the Government to recognise the £8.2 million in public benefit we bring each year to the UK economy and to society, alongside the contribution we make internationally, and help us find an affordable solution to stay at Burlington House.

What is Burlington House / where is it?

Burlington House is located in Piccadilly, London. Dating from the 1870s, it is a Grade II* listed, architecturally and historically significant building, both inside and out.

It was conceived with a grand vision to bring together multiple learned societies of major cultural, scientific and academic importance from a range of disciplines. Burlington House was purpose-built to hold the world-renowned collections, archives and libraries of a number of learned societies, including the Linnean Society. Over time it has been refurbished and adapted to hold the Society’s many educational activities, safeguard its world-renowned and Arts Council England (ACE)-Designated heritage collections, and bring together academia and other enthusiasts about the natural world with a diverse public.

The Linnean Society itself, with the help of Fellows and generous donors, has invested over £2 million in specialist improvements at Burlington House. The purpose-built double cube Library has been upgraded and its engraved glass ceiling, which was damaged during World War II, has been restored. The Linnaean collections have also been protected in the purpose-built Strong Room since 1970 with a new air-conditioning system installed in 2005, while the Smith Herbarium Room, named after the Society’s founder, James Edward Smith, safely maintains and protects Smith’s specimens in a purpose-built, climate-controlled room with study facilities. Improvements have also been made to the accessibility of the building with the installation of a lift (suitable for disabled individuals) and an additional environmentally-controlled room for its unique archives.

Why should the Society stay in London?

Moving the specimen collections and archives into storage facilities, and separating them from staff and users, would significantly limit the Society's ability to deliver on its charitable objectives and threaten the value it generates for the UK. A 2019 assessment by PwC estimated that around half (c. £4 million) of the total gross value delivered each year by the Society (£8.2 million) would be at risk if the Society is forced to relocate.

A move away from Burlington House could significantly impact the Society in three ways:

  • Separate the Society from the international hub of research and discovery at Burlington House and threaten the UK’s position on the world-stage. Dispersal of the co-located learned societies, their collections, libraries and archives would inevitably limit the combined contributions made to research and discovery for both national and global benefit.

  • Dismantle the historical and cultural context of the study of natural history in the UK. The Society's collections represent the beginning of the formal, scientific documentation of the natural world. Their co-location in the heart of London in their historical home is important not only for science, but for the wider public in understanding how the documentation of nature is rooted in, and depends upon, history and culture.

  • Diminish the Society’s network that supports its valuable work for the UK. The Society will lose its close ties to the other important biological and historical collections and associated research expertise in London (at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Natural History Museum, the Wellcome Trust and world-class universities such as Imperial College London, King’s College London and University College London), its political, diplomatic and media influence, and its international status as an awarder of medals and other awards for distinguished achievements in natural history.

What is the current rent?

The rent is recalculated annually and between 2012 and 2018 rose from approx. £4,000 to £129,400 per annum, a 3,000% increase.

What does the government want to increase it to?

The Government (the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, MHCLG) wants to increase the rent to commercial levels for D1 category property, for which they estimate the market rate to be £50-60 per square foot (so, three to four times the current level).

At the beginning of 2020, MHCLG proposed pegging rent increases to 8% per annum (compound) in 2019, with rent reviews at five-year intervals. While offering more predictability than the current lease which has annual rent reviews, it is unsustainable for the Linnean Society as the rent would double every eight to nine years.

MHCLG has been working with DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) since the autumn of 2020 to explore other options, which it had anticipated sharing with the Societies in January 2021. However, this date has already slipped to February and may well extend into March 2021.

What will the impact be on researchers and research?

The Society’s home at Burlington House acts as an international hub for research, discovery and debate. It was at a meeting of the Society in Burlington House where the first public presentation of the theory of evolution was held, and the Society continues to facilitate ideas that will help find solutions to the biggest challenges our society and the planet face today.

Before the pandemic, the Society celebrated hosting a record-number of events at Burlington House, including lunchtime and evening lectures, day meetings, and varied scientific workshops for students and teachers, as well as art workshops and guided tours of the building and collections for students and the general public.

The Society hosts school, undergraduate and postgraduate students through study sessions, open days and conferences. Our distinguished global Fellowship of 3,000 professional scientists, amateurs, artists and historians with a keen interest in natural history also provide mentoring for students at a variety of levels and backgrounds. It is also a key resource for early career researchers from around the UK, who come to Burlington House to explore the collections and library, and to network with others passionate about the natural world.

A move away from Burlington House could significantly impact research in two ways:

  • The dispersal of the co-located learned societies, their collections, libraries and archives would inevitably limit the combined contributions made to research and discovery for both national and global benefit.
  • The Society will lose its close ties to the other important biological and historical collections and associated research expertise in London (at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the Natural History Museum, the Wellcome Trust and world-class universities such as Imperial College London, King’s College London and University College London).

The Society also provides grants to researchers and students for projects to enhance our understanding of the natural world, and recognises excellence by awarding medals and other honours.

The collections have been used to:

  • Inspire and connect young, curious minds with the natural world to biology and natural history through innovative art techniques. The Biomedia Meltdown project, which has been running for six years, offers a range of activities for schools, libraries, hospitals and community groups to explore diverse topics.
  • Identify genes in food crops to support research in resilience against pests and diseases and impacts of environmental change. DNA can be extracted from crop samples and compared with historic samples, such as those in the collections, to understand the impact of domestication.
  • Inform ways of digitising collections. Historians have used the collections to outline how paper technologies evolved to help naturalists handle the influx of biological information on the natural world. This highlights how categorisation can influence our perceptions of the ‘order of nature’.
  • Celebrate the UK’s diplomatic relations. An early 19th-century collection of plants and drawings from Nepal were used to celebrate the Britain-Nepal bicentenary, both in the UK and in Nepal. This not only supported relations between the two countries, but inspired a range of people through art workshops and lectures. Historic collections like these can be used to demonstrate the impact of colonialism both on society and the study of the diversity of nature.
  • Supporting research to uncover what the correct scientific name of the UK’s wild crab apple (Malus sylvestris) is, thus underpinning knowledge of its relationships with our cultivated apples, and potential threats to the genetic diversity of one of our most prized crops.
  • Clarify the naming of seaweeds in the North Atlantic, which are immensely important habitats for marine wildlife and nurseries for fish stock, to enable a better understanding how they are responding to pollution, habitat loss and environmental change.
  • Improve our understanding of approaches to protect some of the United Kingdom's rarest and endangered wild orchids such as the beautiful red helleborine (Cephalanthera rubra) and the fen orchid (Liparis loeselii).
What will the impact be on policy?

The Linnean Society’s collections, and the knowledge of its Fellowship, constitutes an invaluable resource to meet the Government's 25-year Environment Plan. The categorisation of nature enables us to identify baselines and track the impact of human activity on the environment around us, including food supplies, as we face the combined challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change. We also help to bring to diverse audiences concepts like natural capital and ecosystem services, which will help the UK to protect the environment and pave the way for sustainable economic growth.

Who are some of the Society’s most prominent fellows?

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is Patron of the Linnean Society of London.

Our current Honorary Members are:

  • HRH Duke of Edinburgh
  • HRH Prince of Wales
  • HRH The Princess Royal KG
  • His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden
  • His Imperial Majesty The Emperor Emeritus of Japan
  • HIH The Prince Hitachi of Japan
  • Baroness Young of Old Scone
  • Sir David F Attenborough OM GCMG CH CVO CBE FRS FRSB FRSA FLS FZS FSA FRSGS

The Society welcomes all those with an interest in the natural world—there is no academic threshold. The Society is working to become more diverse, with Fellows on all continents, who look on Burlington House as a centre where they will always be welcomed, and where they are able to consult the collections and interact with like-minded people whose varied perspectives on the natural world spark ideas and insights.