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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


How not to impress your boss

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 21 July 2011

Erinaceus europaeus; European HedgehogI have just installed my very first exhibition at the Grant Museum (at any museum actually!) and I am very excited about it! We have a set of pigeon holes in the entrance. On an average day, we use them for the highly sensible and well thought out idea of collaborating with UCL staff and students to display exhibitions of their most recent accomplishments. However, outside of term time- we can freestyle!


Previously, we have installed an A – Z of animals to match the alphabet on the pigeon holes; ‘aardvark, brittlestar, cobra, dragonfly’… etc. Rather than repeat this, I decided to stick my oar in and ask to do a brand spanking new exhibition. I have dreams of researching and designing temporary exhibitions for natural history museums, so this was the perfect opportunity to set out on that particular yellow brick road of museum career omniscience.

Tarsipes rostratus; Honey Possum

With less persuasive speeches that I thought would be required, I was Granted (HAH!) permission to unleash my creativity. I had to use the alphabet theme so I dreamed up the imaginatively awesome title “International Animal Alphabet”. It runs through an A – Z of countries with each represented by a native species. Hardly rocket science, but that would require a mega budget of a gazillion times our decade-al income. It is however, aesthetic, interesting and engaging (she writes with her fingers crossed).

Eager to prove my worth and impress the powers that be, I spent all weekend immersed in the Museum’s online specimen catalogue carefully choosing specimens and rubbing my hands together with glee as I built on what was, quite clearly, a feat of utter genius. Now what I (in hindsight) should have done, is ask my boss for advice. But in the midst of a swirl of blinding enthusiasm I instead decided it would be far more impressive to come up with the entire exhibition over the weekend and build the whole thing before he got in. Surely, that would leave him stunned with awe? So, I worked solidly for two days and got up at 5am on the Monday to have a few hours of working on it at the museum before anyone else arrived.

Excited but nervous, I waited for the response from the Learning and Access Manager as he stared, arms folded and head cocked, at my brainchild.

“Hmmm” he started…

He’s clearly so impressed he’s speechless

“Well…” he went on, “it’s not quite how I’d have done it”


“You see Emma, the Grant Museum has very specific criteria for an exhibition…” he explained


As it turns out, an exhibition at the Grant is almost half designed long before even the concept itself is an embryo in the deepest part of the imagination. Colours, font and line spacing, for example, are all predetermined. Even the grammar has to be just so; one cannot say “This animal” when all other labels (when you look closely, and really think about it) say “These animals”.

So, I started again.

One thing that a predetermined exhibition design certainly does, I admit, is save you time. I constructed the new and vastly improved version in about 20% of the previous time and filled an entire drawer in the intellectual filing cabinet of my brain labelled “Stuff I know about museums”. The finished installation looks a lot more ‘Grant’ and a lot less ‘Primary School’.

Canis adustus; Jackal

To the Grant Museum belongs a rich collection of specimens from all over the world. If you were paying attention, you could grasp that fact from just wandering around the museum. However, the exhibition hones in on the idea of the transcontinental-ness (not a word you’d find in the Grant Museum handbook of correct grammar for exhibition purposes) of our collection and brings together 25 super sexy specimens (there being no countries beginning with X), from the cute and cuddly to the stuff of phobias and nightmares, each with a label (laminated in matt, not gloss, obviously) comprising one or two sentences (20 words or less in total, of course) about the species.

I hope that if you have the time, or if you don’t you shift your priorities to make time, to come and visit the Grant Museum’s new exhibition. Whilst it will undoubtedly be so uber-iffically popular that the queue may reach Euston station, it will be here until September. You will also be very excited to hear, I am sure, that my boss has assured me he is very happy with the end (end) result and would allow me to design further exhibitions in the future. Hoorah!!

International Animal Alphabet Exhibition

3 Responses to “How not to impress your boss”

  • 1
    Seb PW wrote on 25 July 2011:

    A wonderful exhibit as might be expected from such a dedicated individual. Well worth popping-in to mull over and discover some interesting additional factoids about biogeography.

    Every time I visit I spot something new that I’ve not noticed before. I only wish I could visit more often. And this impressive first exhibition provides added value and context to the specimens on show.

    I think this multidimensional approach to specimen displays could well be expanded in the future. Perhaps something like an evolutionary timeline, relational or size could all be different approaches?

    If you have the time and are in the vicinity, perhaps in a lunch break, take a look.

  • 2
    Chris Allen wrote on 23 August 2011:

    Should totally have cheated and had something from Xanadu!

  • 3
    Grant Heming wrote on 16 September 2011:

    Nice, been looking for what seems like an eternity.

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