A Journey of Inspiration and the Discovery of an Icon

Written by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens

At the age of 39, I have 34 years behind me of obsessing over palaeontology. These days if you talk to kids it seems they know every species of dinosaur from birth, and five seems pretty old to have only just decided on your career path.

As Deputy Keeper of Natural History and Curator of Palaeontology, Geology and Osteology at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, I think it’s fair to say I am succeeding in my life goals thus far (feel free to disagree… but not out loud) and through my role at the Museum I often get the privilege of helping to shape the minds of children and young adults. Each and every time, I do my absolute best – partly due to the memories of those who performed the same role for me when I was a child, and what a huge difference that inspiration made to my life.

In Primary School I set up “Oving Dinosaur Museum” in my bedroom and charged visitors (strong-armed family members) 20 pence entry fee. A bargain by today’s standard for paid exhibitions. In one of my all-time favourite Best Life Moments, I received a letter from the Museum of Isle of Wight Geology, addressed to Emma Nicholls C/O Oving Dinosaur Museum.

This was proof – I had made it as a museum curator. Age 11.

Letter dated 4th May 1993, from the Museum of Isle of Wight Geology, addressed to Oving Dinosaur Museum. © Emma Nicholls.

Personally, I wouldn’t discount the impact fictional characters can have on one’s life, who for one thing, never let you down when you meet them in person (the chances of you meeting a fictional character in real life being quite slim and all). Dr Margo Green, the evolutionary biologist in the New York Times Bestseller Relic by Preston and Child (made into a fantastic film starring Penelope Ann Miller in 1997) is an unsung hero of mine. She is determined, she doesn’t take any cr*p from anyone – including mushroom fuelled anthropologist/Kothoga hybrid monsters – and she is dedicated to her science way past the line of a healthy work/life balance. Not that I’m saying everyone should aspire to that last one per se.

Not sure I agree with that quote from Booklist, but evolutionary biologist Dr Margo Green is definitely one of my heroes. © Emma Nicholls.

My Uncle Richard (not a fictional person) was a strong advocate of my career path and facilitated much of my dinosaur obsession by introducing me to epics like Ray Harryhausen’s The Valley of Gwangi, Jack H. Harris’ production Dinosaurs!, and of course the uber mega titan of dinosaur cinema Jurassic Park. You might notice I haven’t listed any particular names (not even Grant and Sattler) and this is an exploration of inspirational icons, so what’s the deal? Well, to be perfectly honest it was the dinosaurs themselves that inspired me, rather than the humans that invariably got mauled/trampled/consumed by them.

What does that say about me I wonder? Maybe keep that to yourself too.

An assortment of inspiring people dinosaurs. © Emma Nicholls.

Books by David Norman and Michael Benton are singing to me from my overflowing bookshelf as I scan for any volumes from my formative years that elicit a feeling of nostalgia and inspiration, and I was definitely impressed and inspired by the sheer volume that Mike in particular seemed capable of producing. I remember thinking Angela Milner was the pinnacle of impressiveness when reading my brand-new Dino-Birds book on the train back from London as an undergraduate.

“Dino-Birds: The Feathered Dinosaurs of China” was a temporary exhibition at the Natural History Museum, London in 2002. The accompanying book was written by Dr Angela Milner. © Emma Nicholls.

Fast forwarding to starting my Masters’ degree at the University of Bristol, I remember the actual room I was in when I met Dr Emily Rayfield. We didn’t interact that much, I doubt I was really on her radar at any point, but our meeting was one of life’s ‘lightning moments’*. Emily was not only a leader in the field of Finite Element Analysis, an area of palaeontology that seemed just off-the-chart-crazy-difficult to me at the time, but she was also a mother. In terms of inspiring figures, meeting Emily has stayed with me.

Goodness knows who or what utter rubbish had been filling my head prior to this encounter that I could, albeit subconsciously, have ever believed that motherhood and a career in science were mutually exclusive. Maybe it was simply I had reached Masters level and yet she was the first woman with that background that I really remember encountering. Representation matters!!

Many years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Matthew Parkes, who many of you will have known. His unerring kindness and gentle nature struck a deep chord with me. Succeeding in his career whilst not losing that part of him, is one of my life’s greatest inspirations. In more recent years I got to know Matthew better through my place on the GCG committee and we kept in touch between meetings, celebrating each other’s triumphs and commiserating about… well a whole host of things. The last time I saw Matthew in person was when he stood down from committee in December 2019, and I remember telling him what a wonderful man he is, that he was one of the kindest people I knew and how much I would miss seeing him now that he had left. I hope the memory of his reaction stays with me forever. If I had known Matthew would pass away the following year, at far too young an age, I’m not sure I’d have said anything particularly different. Perhaps there’s a life lesson there too.

Matthew Parkes, doing two of the things he did best – looking at rocks, and helping his friends and colleagues. © Emma Nicholls.

So that brings us up to date and specifically to this date – 26th March 2021. This is the day the Kate Winslet film Ammonite is released for home streaming (all the cinemas being closed and all – long may they survive…). In case you haven’t come across it yet, Ammonite is a story loosely based on the life of Mary Anning, tagged as “biography, drama, romance” by those who’ve had a sneak peek.

Now I’m going to be very honest with you all, Mary Anning wasn’t particularly frontal lobe when I was growing up (as you may or may not have noticed having – presumably – read the above article). I filled my bookshelves, my head, and my life with vertebrate palaeontology and yet, although I knew her name, and I definitely knew of her discoveries, I didn’t know much about her or her life. It’s not as though books on Mary didn’t exist, numerous novels including Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures had been published by the time I finished my undergraduate degree in 2005, but I think the problem is the books I read (at the time) weren’t novels, they were textbooks. And Mary didn’t seem to appear in those…

The tide is turning of course, and my personal knowledge and understanding of Mary has increased exponentially over the last couple of years. The more I have learnt about her and her life, the more she is – now – becoming a genuine icon and role model of mine. For me personally, I am inspired by her determination in the face of adversity. She lived a life full of a seemingly unending list of heartbreaks and frustrations, but she never gave up. I don’t mean on her fossil hunting, as far as I understand it that was the primary means by which the family survived, so “giving up” wasn’t an option. I mean her “studies”, her thirst for knowledge, her quest for scientific understanding. She was shunned and excluded but she never lost her resolve. She was a scientist nonetheless.

My growing Mary Library. I also have the very enjoyable Lightning Mary by Anthea Simmons, but I posted it to a friend to help them through lockdown in a moment of ill-timed benevolence. © Emma Nicholls.

Fortunately for me I live in a world where there is less gender bias than during the Georgian and Victorian eras, when Mary was alive. However, I relate to Mary’s unwavering will to succeed in the face of adversity. I have a joint condition that causes me a lot of pain. The pain level varies but it never goes away, it impacts my life daily and the condition will never improve. It doesn’t stop me doing my job, I can haul fossils around with the best of them (well perhaps with those of equal stature to me, I’m not going to outlift Dwayne Johnson should he one day turn his hand to palaeontology) but my point is, seeing someone overcoming their own version of “the odds” and continuing what they want to do with such determination and resolve, is very inspirational indeed.

I’ll leave you with one last name. The impressive campaigning of indefatigable Lyme Regis schoolgirl Evie Swire to fundraise for a statue of Mary to be erected in their shared hometown has succeeded! Now all those thousands of fossil hungry beach-combers who visit Lyme Regis every year will finally be able to see a statue of one of the greatest fossil hunters and naturally talented palaeontologists the world has ever seen. Thank you Evie and Team, and blummin’ well done to you all!

Just so you know, I now have a whole host of Mary Anning books and I’m delighted to see Tom Sharpe’s The Fossil Woman: A Life of Mary Anning is now available too. A definite purchase in waiting. I think it is fair to say, I have become a full-on Mary Anning fan girl!

* Subconscious Mary Anning pun?

2 thoughts on “A Journey of Inspiration and the Discovery of an Icon

  1. I love this blog. I have encountered people young and old who can state precisely who or what inspired them to follow their passions. It’s one of the main reasons why we normally do so many outreach programs in schools. Many of these students have never visited a natural history museum in person. Many more have no idea of the variety of careers in science. So I am encouraged anytime a student can see relatable role models in these positions. I am also encouraged to see people who may have chosen other careers, but return to their earliest interests either actively engaged in paleontology or by supporting museums. We need them in all levels of abilities and interests to stay curious and engaged if we hope to continue to keep our doors open and herald the next generation of future scientists.

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