Alumna archives Professor Stephen Hawking’s office


A BCU Alumna was given the opportunity of a lifetime after landing a job photographing and archiving items from the office of theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author, Professor Stephen Hawking.

Nicola Onions, who graduated with a BA (Hons) in Visual Communication (Photography) in 2014, has been working closely with The Science Museum on the major project ‘Stephen Hawking’s Office’.

During his life, Professor Stephen Hawking donated items from his collection to the museum. After passing away in 2018, the contents of his office at the University of Cambridge, which had been the hub of his working activities since 1999, was given to The Science Museum.

Nicola, who has photographed numerous archives since graduating, was given the task of photographing and cataloguing over 1,000 objects from the office to go onto a free online collection that everyone can now view and get a glimpse of the life and work of Professor Stephen Hawking.

Stephen Hawking's Oxford Coxing blazer, with University College badge and a note about being thrown in the river.

She said: “Previously, I had worked for The Science Museum on another archive project photographing the Daily Herald archive at The Science and Media Museum in Bradford.

“I really enjoyed being part of a project that was cataloguing photographic history for the world to enjoy. I kept an eye on jobs at the museum group after that ended, and I soon saw this opportunity. I went for it and got the job. My final major project at BCU was all about memory, and my family archive of photographs, so it makes sense that I am very interested in archives.

“As part of the project, I photographed the objects in what the museum describes as ‘enhanced object photography’, which is essentially showing the object off more than a usual cataloguing image which can be just one photo.

“As my degree was Visual Communication, I often think about what I am trying to communicate to the audience, and in this case, find the story I want to tell about the objects using my photography. I took photos of the front and backs of each item, as well as other angles and small details, such as Stephen’s signature too. The photographs also had lighting I had designed for a consistent look throughout.

“When working with museum objects, the care of the object is the most important thing, so if you can get high quality photos, that’s the best case scenario, as you don’t have to touch or disturb the object more than you need to.”

The couch in Stephen Hawking's office that was for medical treatments. The additional cushions underneath can make the top into a flat bed. 

Throughout the project, the graduate was given the opportunity to gain a real insight into the life of Stephen Hawking, as well as how he worked with his students and his personality.

Nicola said: “It was a fantastic experience to be involved in this project and through working with the objects so closely, I feel a connection to Hawking now. I really got to know more about him as a person and not just about his amazing discoveries either.

“Stephen kept all his memorabilia from The Simpsons cameos he did, as well as loads of gifts from all over the world and many cards and letters which he kept which were so interesting to read. This will all be part of an upcoming Science Museum exhibition where they hope to recreate his office.

“The photographs give a great insight into the way he worked with students, and his personality, so I’m really happy that everyone can enjoy these objects as much as me now.

“Working within the archive just gives you a sense of being part of the history of it, something a bit bigger, and seeing it all together at the end is the best feeling.”

Since graduating from BCU, Nicola has enjoyed huge success within her chosen industry, with more exciting projects on the horizon too.

She said: “Since graduating, I won the GRAIN graduate award for my final major project and I went on to do an internship at the Library of Birmingham, which at the time had the biggest photographic archive in Europe, so that was fascinating to me. I also helped to photograph all the artwork in the collection at the Royal Birmingham Society for Artists so that they could provide an online database of work for the public and students to access.

“I also took on other internships and freelance photography jobs, dabbling with event and wedding photography and have even taught photography to beginners. I’ve also worked shooting product photography for jewellery and drinks companies and worked with auction houses too.”

Nicola’s advice to current Photography students includes making the most of the facilities provided at BCU.

She said: “My advice to students would be to put everything into your work at degree level because you have so much support and facilities to really help you create work and put it out into the world, so take advantage of it.

“I also really try to use every job, even if it’s not photography related, to learn lessons or gain helpful experience in other areas. It could even be working with others or gaining confidence. It can, in the end, help your photographic practice in some way. Also, don’t be put off if it doesn’t happen right away, you go through life at your own pace and if you love it, then just keep going.”

View all of Nicola’s photographs from Stephen Hawking’s office here.
Find out more about the Stephen Hawking’s Office project here.

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