Don’t panic! New exhibition gives peek into the improbable world of Douglas Adams
“We don’t know how much time Adams spent in the Library at St John’s but we’re delighted that his papers made their way to us”
The historic Old Library of St John’s is hosting a special exhibition about the life and genius of Douglas Adams, College alumnus and late author of cult sci-fi comedy franchise The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
‘Improbabilities: A Douglas Adams Exhibition’ takes place on 15 and 16 September as part of this year’s free Open Cambridge festival of history and culture.
Curated by Dr Adam Crothers, Special Collections Assistant at St John’s, the exhibition celebrates the publication of a new book called 42: The Wildly Improbable Ideas of Douglas Adams. Edited by Kevin Jon Davies, a friend and biographer of Adams, the book draws upon the rich Douglas Adams archives held at St John’s that feature boxes of diaries, notebooks, essays, photographs and personal belongings – including his childhood teddy.
The free exhibition in the 17th-century Old Library caters to those new to Adams’s work as well as to long-time fans. Born in Cambridge in 1952, Adams was an undergraduate at St John’s in the early 1970s when he was a member of The Lady Margaret Players and famous Cambridge Footlights. He went on to become a professional comedy writer, with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy franchise of original BBC radio show, books, TV series and films making him a legend in the world of science fiction. He died of a heart attack in 2001 aged just 49.
“We’re going for something of a whistle-stop tour of Adams’s life and work, touching on his time studying English literature at St John’s”
The central joke of Hitchhiker’s is a giant computer called Deep Thought who after 7.5m years of pondering solemnly announces that the Ultimate Answer to ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’ is the number 42.
The exhibition includes material that does not appear in the book. Dr Crothers said: “There are rather fewer than 42 exhibition cases available to us so we’re going for something of a whistle-stop tour of Adams’s life and work, starting with his schooldays, touching on his time studying English literature at St John’s and cutting his teeth on the Cambridge comedy scene; and moving to his successes with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Doctor Who, the Dirk Gently books, the radio programme and book Last Chance to See - about endangered animals - and more.
“Along with the obvious hits, there are appearances from lesser-known projects, such as a space-themed ride for Chessington World of Adventures and an outline for an epic science-fiction TV series called The Secret Empire.”
“We’d like to think Adams would be amused that his undergraduate essay about Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde will share an exhibition case with a 15th-century manuscript of that same poem”
It is the first time since 2018, when the one-day ‘Douglas Adams: Life in the Universe’ exhibition was held in the Old Library, that artefacts from the Adams papers have been brought together.
“We’ve swapped some bits around and figured out space for a few additional items, including a Samuel Taylor Coleridge pastiche and an evidently much-loved teddy bear,” said Dr Crothers.
“We’ve also incorporated some non-Adams items from the Old Library that seemed to resonate with the contents of the exhibition cases: visitors will get to see some medieval manuscripts and rare printed books in amongst the photographs, scripts, notes, letters and so on. We hope this will be a little bonus for those visitors who don’t find even late-1970s radio comedy quite antiquarian enough; and we’d like to think Adams would be amused that, for example, an undergraduate essay about Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde is going to share an exhibition case with a 15th-century manuscript of that same poem.
“We look forward to welcoming visitors whether you’re a really ‘hoopy frood’ who knows where your towel is, or somebody who doesn’t yet have any idea what that means”
“We don’t know how much time Adams spent in the Library during his time at St John’s, but we’re delighted that his papers made their way to us, and we look forward to welcoming visitors to the event, whether you’re a really ‘hoopy frood’ who knows where your towel is, or somebody who doesn’t yet have any idea what that means.”
The first day of the exhibition on Friday takes place ahead of an event at Heffers Bookshop on Cambridge’s Trinity Street when Kevin Jon Davies will be talking about his book 42: The Wildly Improbable Ideas of Douglas Adams (published by Unbound, RRP £30) from 7pm. Tickets are priced from £8 (or £35 including book).
‘Improbabilities: A Douglas Adams Exhibition’ is open in the Old Library at St John’s College from 1-4pm on Friday 15 September and 10am-4pm on Saturday 16 September. No booking required, entrance is via E Staircase in Second Court.