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The Life in a Day of a Museum Assistant Part I

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 20 May 2011

As the newest member of ‘Team Grant’, I thought I’d share a brief synopsis of how I went from dreaming the dream, to living it.

In the beginning…
At age five (according to my parents) I announced that I wanted to be a “fossil person” and “work in a museum”. Although (I found out sometime later) my parents thought it was ‘just a phase’ that I would ‘inevitably grow out of’, they were untiringly supportive. They went with me to Tring Museum (our nearest museum of natural history) and took me to the zoo on my birthday every year whilst simultaneously doing a rather splendid job of imitating someone who was genuinely interested as I rattled off fact after fact about the various species. They drove me to events run by the Young Archaeologist’s Club (no-one had realised the as yet untapped genius behind a Young Palaeontologist’s Club) and were even light on punishment when I dug a hole in the centre of their lawn looking for dinosaur bones.

Grant Museum Dinosaur Models

My already cluttered bedroom became a cabinet of zoological and palaeontological curiosities, with every spare inch of space proudly displaying a fossil specimen. With accession label. Of course. I expanded my fossil collection with things I found on weekendly expeditions into the countryside around my house, including a fractured badger skull, half of a sheep’s femur and a piece of pottery (subsequently dated at about five years BP). In addition to the plethora of fossils and recently deceased creatures, I also plastered my room with posters and models of modern and prehistoric animals alike. I decided at the age of about ten that I had enough specimens to warrant opening my bedroom as a museum. I called it the ‘The Oving Dinosaur Museum’ (no-one mentioned the obvious lack of dinosaur specimens) and began charging my friends and family a 20p entrance fee. I started sending ammonites I had acquired to the Tring Museum of Natural History for ‘official identification’ as I called it at the time and was secretly ecstatic (if outwardly nonchalant) over the receipt of my first letter addressed to “Emma-Louise Nicholls c/o The Oving Dinosaur Museum”. I should take this opportunity to belatedly thank the staff of Tring Museum for humouring me, albeit 20 years late…

The formative years
Thirteen boring years of school after my initial declaration of interest, I finally got to go to university and specialise my education. I began with a BSc in Geology, which turned into an MSci (almost purely because it’s higher and I have ‘over-achiever syndrome’). Then I had the delightful good fortune to suffer a car accident in which the insurance company, employed by the drunken Scotsman who rammed me off the road in his pick-up truck, dolled out enough cash in compensation to allow me to do the long craved after MSc in Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol. The final assault on the avoidance of jumping on the tax-payer band-wagon was my Ph.D. All the way through these nine years of academic slavery, I simultaneously worked for any and every museum I could force my boot through the door of.

In each city of every university that I attended I volunteered at a museum. On a couple of occasions my obsessive-ness had me volunteering at multiple museums whilst also studying full time at university. My mantra was “I am the Tsar of time management”. Whether that was true or not, I have definitely managed to pack a lot in to the 29 years of my existence thus far.

Demonstrating for an undergraduate field classIt was an ongoing joke at the Lapworth Museum of Geology that, in the three years I worked there as an undergrad, I managed to talk my way in to so many areas I ended up with as many if not more keys than the curator. A flood that occurred there was the beginning of my (ongoing) quest for global museum domination. A volunteer at the time, the university was sufficiently grateful to me for my action hero shenanigans upon discovering the flood, that they decided it would be in the personal interest of the museum itself to keep me keen by paying me for the work I was doing. Hoorah! The breadth of experience that I gained as a result of my ‘wide eyed, waggy tailed, puppy dog enthusiasm’ (quote, unquote) was incredible and formed the giant foundation that led me to roles as curator, archivist, web publishing assistant, museum assistant, field researcher, teaching assistant and gallery tour guide. By the time I was starting my Ph.D my C.V. was sufficiently shiny with angel halo category gold aura to warrant opportunities such as being shipped off to Florida to star as ‘Guest Expert’ at the Florida Museum of Natural History for a temporary exhibition on sharks. It also landed me with two museum scholarships and an award for excellence in palaeontology.

So, seven museums and nine years later, I finished university and optimistically believed I had also finished my life long (thus far) pledge to the volunteer sector.

Story concludes with the second half out Monday!

2 Responses to “The Life in a Day of a Museum Assistant Part I”

  • 1
    Seb PW wrote on 21 May 2011:

    What a lovely tale.

    I’m sure this will be a source of great inspiration and guidance to countless young minds. And when they visit the Grant, as I’m sure they will, they will undoubtedly be energised with your enthusiasm and radiant character.

    I look forward to reading your next instalment.

  • 2
    ucfbeln wrote on 24 May 2011:

    Wow, thanks! I was hoping to tell my story in a way that was meaningful to other people in the hope of inspiring. If you think I have managed to do that then I’m very happy!

    Hope you enjoyed the second half?!

    Thanks for leaving a comment :

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