MY STORY Miranda Lowe, exercising cultural power
Culture& was founded in 1987 as Cultural Co-operation to promote diversity in the arts and heritage workforce, cultural exchange and to expand audiences. A charity, it has appointed Miranda Lowe, a curator at the Natural History Museum, as its chair. Last year she appeared as a guest on the BBC Radio 4 programme The Museum of Curiosity when her hypothetical donation was a moon jellyfish.
Why do you think you have been appointed?
Culture& wanted a chair who would bring strong leadership skills and excellent contacts in the arts and heritage sector and help the charity build on its role as a leading voice and centre for diverse practice in this sector. I believe I have those qualities as I've had a love of art since childhood with an interest in photography.
Over time my museum role has allowed me to combine both art and science to create increased accessibility and public engagement. Despite having worked 30 years in the sector, I provide fresh perspective to help develop working more closely with museums. My leadership style is collaborative, and I tend to work across many sectors and disciplines to inform my own thinking.
Decolonisation in natural history and environmental sciences is an example of my forward thinking which has led to me becoming a leading voice in this area of work and this has applications to the art world too.
For the first time there is also a vice-chair, the strategy specialist Svetlana Leu. Why?
Creating this new position is part of Culture& succession planning. It will enhance its structure, enabling the vice-chair to work with me as chair. Svetlana as a strategy specialist brings valuable skills to the board and charity ensuring it fulfils its governance responsibilities. She is very talented and within her role will be able to shadow and deputise for me where needed.
Culture&’s mission is to work for cultural understanding and participation, but what does it actually do, and how is its work funded?
Culture& works to improve diversity and equality in arts and heritage through work-based training and public programmes. The New Museum School programme from 2013 to the present is part of that and has annually provided 18 work-based placements within museums and galleries where trainees from diverse backgrounds are involved in wide ranging curatorial activities including production and delivery of public programmes.
Much of Culture&'s work is funded through inspired partnerships and has most recently been awarded funding by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the Art Fund and Arts Council England to deliver an exciting new programme of training and a gold-standard postgraduate offer in partnership with the University of Leicester.
What has been Culture&’s most recent achievement?
Our Black Lives Matter Charter for the UK Heritage which calls on our partners and the wider arts and heritage sectors to make clear their position by committing to make the changes stated within the charter in order to decolonise their relationship with the UK black community and their workforce, collections and programmes.
It was one of the many aspects about Culture& that attracted me to the role of chair. The charter is something I support and is in line with Culture&'s mission to open up the UK arts and heritage sectors to more diverse talent and to expand audiences to be more inclusive. During 2020, a year in which Black Lives Matter and the Covid-19 pandemic have thrown light upon inequity, Culture&’s role has never been more vital.
In addition, we are delighted to have secured a partnership with the University of Leicester to deliver the Advanced New Museum School postgraduate programme that will nurture the next generation of diverse talent for the UK arts and heritage sectors.
As a principal museum curator you have serious time constraints – all of those involved have busy separate professional lives. How much time will you be able to devote to this new voluntary role?
I thought long and hard before applying for this role but I'm no stranger in devoting my time to voluntary roles outside of work and have learnt how to better manage my time. I get a sense of enjoyment from the voluntary roles I do, otherwise I wouldn't do them. I've done much mentoring where I can put my proactivity, flexibility, enthusiasm, leadership, kindness and professionalism into practice. For this role I can implement all of those skills. There will be some challenges, but good diary management and scheduling is important.
What is first on your list of priorities?
To get to know the board and all staff at Culture&, their skills, and agree mutual ways of working. I might be looking for a few new trustees to provide continued strength, resilience and diversity to the charity's board.
The next priority will be to allocate time for securing fundraising partnerships in order to develop new artistic and workforce projects following a strategic approach, and cultivating partnerships to realise those objectives. We are at a pivotal point in our development and are working toward application to Arts Council England as part of their National Portfolio and as a Sector Support Agency.
How do you think the sector, and museums in particular, can best recover from the pandemic?
The pandemic has been devasting for our sector with job losses and there is a long road to economic recovery. It is a time for museums to pause, reflect, and reimagine to become more innovative by adjusting priorities and focusing on what is critical to their mission. There is opportunity to reshape and upskill staff through digital aspects such as online training and webinars. Health and well-being are important so should be at the core for both staff and public relationships. Virtual tours of collections and gallery spaces have formed some levels of continued public engagement on a more global scale than perhaps before.
The sector needs to have better and deeper connections to their local communities to develop initiatives with the black and brown audiences they once ignored. We need to create programmes that are more relevant to them as the reliance on worldwide tourism will be reduced for some time yet. Look at what is on your doorstep, engage the public, as this is the time for reconnection and even trying out new elements and ways of working.
Museums have a lot of bureaucracy which can often unnecessarily complicate and slow things down, and they now have to be nimbler. Culture& is an organisation that has thought about that recovery as it strives to be inventive, open, relevant and thinking outside of the box.
How can you help, and has Culture&’s purpose changed in the wake of the Covid crisis?
It’s an honour to be appointed as chair of Culture&’s board to help shape this great asset within the arts and heritage sector. This offers a fresh opportunity to work with staff, CEO and board in advocating for workforce equity and representative creative practice whilst providing meaningful engagement and inspiration for all.
I've been working in the sector for 30 years from curatorial assistant to principal curator; I've seen changes, been part of and have led positive change in the sector to open it up much more, creating opportunities, access and enjoyment for all. Within my leadership, I continue to listen to others and learn because, for me, it's about sharing, nurturing, inspiring others to make the greatest change. This will further strengthen governance capacity as the charity takes forward its successful mission to the next stage over the next few years. Culture& has been shaping thinking and practice by its commitment to diversifying the arts and heritage sectors for over 30 years.
Do you collaborate on projects with other cultural organisations?
Arts Catalyst, Scarborough Museum to name but a few who I've worked with on various public facing projects in the past. Just recently working with Invisible Dust I was part of their Forecast programme that brings together artists, scientists, thinkers and change-makers from around the world to explore answers to the question “What is shaping how you think about the planet’s future?” Last year I collaborated with Impressions Gallery was another online “Seedscapes Symposium” on how artists and scientists can work together, and how photographs could catalyse change, inspired by their exhibition Seedscapes: Future-Proofing Nature. I enjoy working with individual artists to interpret my world of science and natural history, as was the case when I participated in artist Sonya Dyer's Hailing Frequencies Open work exploring the dubious genesis of HeLa cells – combining social justice with speculation, fantasy with the political.
In 2007, I had the opportunity to work with the American artist Mark Dion and the Natural History Museum on his exhibition Systema Metropolis with the title derived from Carl Linnaeus’ seminal work Systema Naturae, published in 1735. I joined Dion and a team of staff from the museum gathering samples from the microcosm of life carried out at Highgate, Brompton and East Finchley Cemeteries, turning up various creepy crawlies on the graves of three famous figures. Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst’s grave was popular with centipede-like creatures, while Karl Marx had quite a few snails and spiders living on him. Biologist Thomas Huxley’s grave had attracted more than one type of woodlice!
How long is your appointment for, and what do you hope will be your legacy?
My appointment is for three years. It would be a wonderful legacy to leave Culture& with platinum standards that the art and heritage sector aspire to, handing over to the CEO and vice-chair (to become chair eventually) a charity that is embedded in the sector continuing to open up who creates and participates in the cultural sector bringing people together irrespective of background, race, gender identity and ability.