UCL News


Spotlight on Emma-Louise Nicholls

29 May 2014

This week the spotlight is on Emma-Louise Nicholls, Curatorial Assistant at the UCL Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL Public and Cultural Engagement.

Emma-Louise Nicholls

What is your role and what does it involve?

Although the Grant Museum is open to the public, we are first and foremost a teaching collection that is used heavily by a number of UCL departments. 

We hold large practicals in the museum in which specimens are taken out of the display cases and put on the tables for closer inspection. 

Sometimes, we even take the mountain to the students and pack up specimens for practicals around campus. I am responsible for a huge range of things, but my primary role is the care, and student use, of the collections. 

I facilitate the practicals as well as monitor and deal with the subsequent wear and tear on the specimens, which can be a huge job! I'm also responsible for a lot of social media, help out at events and deal with researchers who want to use our collections. 

Members of the public are also able to benefit from the museum as a teaching collection. We offer the facility to get specimens out of the display cases if, for example, an artist wanted to draw them. 

Although we are open to the public from 1-5pm Monday to Saturday, researchers and members of the public are able to book in advance to visit outside of normal opening hours for this sort of use of the collections. 

Along with my colleagues, I facilitate this sort of access, which is wonderful, as I get to meet and speak to all sorts of people.

I also sit on the Collections Advisory Group, which offers advice on collections care across the university, including Egyptian archaeology, art and geology.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I have been at the Grant Museum for three years. Before that, I was, coincidentally, at UCL, studying fossil sharks for my PhD in palaeontology. 

Prior to my current role at UCL, alongside my academic career I volunteered at seven different museums of natural history and/or geology. I'm one of those super enthusiastic people who likes to have their fingers in lots of pies.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

I was heavily involved in the installation of the Micrarium at the Grant Museum. 

For those who haven't seen it, the Micrarium is a walk-in cupboard with light boxes covering three entire walls and a mirror on the ceiling. You can see it behind me in the picture above.

Mounted in front of the light boxes are 2,323 zoological microscope slides that were carefully selected, cleaned and installed mainly by myself and the curator, Mark Carnall. 

The Micrarium is currently up for a Museums and Heritage Award for Project on a Limited Budget. Fingers crossed!

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?

Currently, I am working on location checking, which probably requires some explanation. 

Three years ago, the Grant Museum moved across the road from the Darwin Building to the Rockefeller Building where we are now. It was a huge operation that took eight months to achieve.

As a result of the move, combined with the heavy usage of the collections as outlined above, specimens aren't always where they should be. 

Every specimen that has a record on our database needs to be location checked and then the relevant fields need to be altered on the database to reflect the new building. 

It is a huge job that takes up a lot of my and the curator's time, as well as the time of a team of volunteers. 

But I love it, because you have to be a detective, piecing together evidence to work out what specimen matches what record, for example, and it's exciting whenever you have a eureka moment!

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

My favourite album is probably the soundtrack to Disney's Brother Bear. Maybe I shouldn't admit to that in such a public forum.

My favourite film is Outbreak. Once you (as a biologist or other pedantic type who cares) get over the idea that capuchin monkeys (from South America) are native to Africa, it's a fantastic, dramatic film about an epidemic that threatens to wipe out mankind. 

I have a tradition of watching it whenever I'm really ill, as the virus is so nasty that it makes me think, at least I don't feel that bad. Weird psychology, I suppose.

I prefer factual books to novels, so my favourite book is The Lost City of Z by David Grann. It is the only book I have read more than twice and I have even bought copies for other people as gifts. 

Published in 2009, the book describes the author's journey through the Amazon jungle as he attempts to trace the expedition of Col. Percy Fawcett. 

Fawcett disappeared into the Amazon in the early 1900s on a quest to find the "lost" (as in most likely mythical) City of Z. The book jumps between the modern day and the 1920s to describe and compare Grann's and Fawcett's expeditions.

It's a very exciting book, made all the more incredible by the fact that it is a true story.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

Why did the spider buy a computer? It wanted to go on the web. 

(You didn't say it had to be a good joke.)

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

As it's a dream, I'm guessing I can have dead people? 

I would invite Dr David Livingstone, Charles Darwin (cliché but true), Ernest Shackleton, Robert Scott, Col. Percy Fawcett and Sir John Franklin (a 19th-century explorer who tried to navigate the northwest passage). 

The thought of speaking to any, let alone all of these men would have me rubbing every lamp I ever came across.

What advice would you give your younger self?

The one thing I really wish I had done when I was younger is talk to my grandparents more about their lives, as well as more obvious topics, such as the war. 

By the time I was old enough to have an appreciation for such things, sadly, the opportunity was lost. I would speak to my younger self and point out that they won't be around forever.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

It seems to surprise people when they find out that I love making model airplanes. I particularly like early planes; I just love rotary engines! My favourite is the Westland Lysander, of which I have three models (thus far), each a different mark. 

I'm not so interested in more modern aircraft such as jets, though the American SR71 Blackbird has a very special place in my heart, and I ensure that I visit the one at Duxford Imperial War Museum every time I go.

What is your favourite place?

It's a tough decision between the Amazon rainforest and Disneyland Paris.