Culture& Interview with Miranda Lowe – Culture& Chair of Trustees

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Miranda is a Principal Curator and museum scientist at the Natural History Museum, London. With over two decades worth of collections management and curatorial skills she cares for a plethora of historically important specimens, she also presents lectures on both curatorial research and popular science. Her scientific expertise is in peracarid crustacea and in coral taxonomy. Miranda directly manages both the Crustacea and cnidaria, and associated minor phyla collections.

Miranda is a founding member of Museum Detox, and also mentors students as part of the Social Mobility Foundation ‘Aspiring Professionals’ scheme and the Prince’s Trust. In 2013, Miranda was one of three finalists for the National Diversity Awards ‘Positive Role Model Award for Race, Religion & Faith’, receiving a Certificate of Excellence for her achievement. Most recently she has received the accolade of being listed in BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour Power List 2020: Our Planet.

What are your thoughts and hopes as the UK eases out of lockdown

Well, I just hope we continue easing out in the right way. For my thoughts and hopes? It will be a new era for most of us within the arts and heritage sector and we will have new colleagues to interact with, and some of our old colleagues, and some that we were more professionally familiar with may have lost their jobs. We are entering another period of change and transition as we return to work in small pockets

Everybody keeps using the term ‘new normal’, of course it depends on what you are used to, but I don’t think anything is ‘normal’ and I hope that maybe there will be a consistency of reliability about it, but this will take a long time for that to happen economically as well as culturally. So, I think we’re still on tenterhooks as we move forward.

I think my hope is that people have had a chance to reflect on who they are as people, what their role is within the sector, what they would like to say and hopefully, be able to implement that. There’s been a lot of talk in the last year and I hope this can matched by proactive action to achieve the full bench of equality and equity for marginalised groups of people,

In a sense all of us have been taking stock of our lives, but I also hope that we can continue thinking about others you know? Being kind, having more empathy. During the pandemic we have delved a little bit more into the personal lives of colleagues. Got to know them much better, albeit at a distance, because we’re all working from home. Hopefully moving forward, we will have a better quality of work life going either back into the office or having the option to work part of the week from home.

I think all of us have changed, even those that have resisted change within the sector for a very long time. There has been an element of change forced upon us, and we have all had to embrace it as much as we can. So, fingers crossed that it will be better for most of us, if not all.

What advice would you give to young people who are interested in pursuing an arts and heritage career?

It is a difficult landscape for us all now, and related to the first question – some of our colleagues would have been made redundant, or taken a voluntary exit, or their jobs may no longer exist. Some small institutions – art galleries, museums may not reopen again. So, in terms of getting into the sector. I think more than ever you have to be a little bit entrepreneurial about it.

Young people predominantly I think should be better equipped in terms of the online environment than people like myself who entered the sector pre-Internet 30 years ago, and so they will have the skills to pursue the sector online and set up their own digital museums and online spaces. Curation of a digital museum might be a little bit more accessible, though of course not everyone has access to online resources or to equipment. It should now be easier to get collectives together on online. Young people tend to have a digital skill advantage, and so can more quickly approach museums with new ideas, get their ideas more quickly out there to either have a role, or create their own. Roles might not necessarily just have to be a curator, or gallery interpretation developer, it could be a whole new role. There could be a whole new realm of job titles to come forward coming out of the pandemic.

I’m always up for a conversation should anyone want advice. To every young person that I meet, and I do a lot of mentoring of young people, I always say ‘let me know if there is anyone I can put you in contact with; I’ve got a wide network that you can use, ask me anything you want’. I like extending my networks to young people and signposting to help them get in, it’s a totally different landscape to when I entered the sector. I started 30 years ago in a mixed post, part science, part curation. I didn’t do a museum studies qualification, I did a science Masters (MSc) while I was already in post in my job. So, the way for I progressed, I came in as what is effectively now known as an assistant curator, but at the time I was called an assistant scientific officer because the Natural History Museum was closely linked to the civil service and those were civil service grades in place then in the 1990’s. I then learnt all in-house curatorial skills on the job a bit like an apprenticeship.

Apprenticeships, are the kind of thing that certain parts of the sector have moved away from in the last 20 years, it has been coming back slowly and not just because of diversity schemes. Currently however there has been a tendency to get young people in on a project for one or two years where both the organisation and young people invest a lot. But ultimately, they are never given a permanent job at the end of it, and that’s what needs to happen, that you’re investing in these young people and that they get a job. They could come in on a permanent contract, and the apprenticeship is just their training period for two years that way there is succession and career progression for them to move up within the organisation. So, I think there’s something to be said about apprenticeships being expanded a lot more in the coming years.

One thing I must say that young people are instrumental to the survival and sustainability of the sector going forward in terms of new ideas, fresh perspectives, also being advocates for other younger people than themselves to want to be inspired and to come through. It’s kind of keeping that regeneration and sustainability of the sector and the vibrancy as well.

What was your path into the Arts and Heritage Sector?

Well, I did love art at school and science. Although I went into the biological area of science, I was still passionate about art. As a child that involved taking up photography which I still do now as a hobby. I link photography into my work and role by taking photographs of the specimens in collections that I work with. I’m inspired by nature whilst observing it through photography and documenting.

When I was at secondary school, developing my own analog-film photographs before the digital era of photography. The only thing is that my mum said I would never make a living out of becoming an artist and you know, both parents want the best for you and want you to have a good life, they’d probably have said the same thing if I wanted to be an actor or actress.

As a child I always went to museums with the family such as the Horniman Museum which was our more local museum, we went to quite a lot and then, on special occasions going to the Natural History Museum. So, I was exposed to museums at a young age. I’m not surprised that I ended up working in one. And those were the days before the Internet, and you didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes.

I am able to bring a little bit of my love for art into my scientific curatorial role, where I love interacting with artists, allowing them to interpret the collections whether it be through visual art, fashion or design. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some quite famous fashion designers, sculptors, photographers. I love that people have come in and had a look at the collections and were inspired by it to create their own body of work, creating that artistic interpretation of natural history and collections. I love to see the collections viewed in a different, non-science-based way, and I think having the two options makes it more accessible to members of the public. So that’s just the whistle-stop tour, of how I got into the sector and, you know, it’s great for me to have become the Chair of Culture&, because I feel that it embraces a lot of my personal values. and I’m so glad to be part of what Culture& is.

What are your thoughts on the Culture& Black Lives Matter Charter for the UK heritage sector? Which point do you think is most crucial to effecting change in the arts?

 I think it’s brilliant! It was really needed at that point in time when it was issued. A lot of institutions were putting out statements of acknowledgement, but I think this one stood out in terms that it had really poignant and valid points to actually get the sector to look at, recognise, acknowledge and actively do something. I found it just surfing the net, it was everywhere and I thought, oh, this is good, this is good; This is bold. Because it says it’s a charter, just that word alone, it sounds really serious rather than a statement or an acknowledgement. it seemed like it meant business, now it has become a talking point, or reference point that people can refer to. I have sent people to have a look at it to see, ‘look what you can do’, ‘look what this small organisation is doing’, ‘go follow and pick up on these points’.

it’s really good and interesting that Culture& is committed to these values at its core, a lot of institutions, as I say, put out those acknowledgement statements, but are probably holding back a little bit and probably have been doing things in the background. I think last year, just because of the situation we all were in, we had to seize the moment. This is the time where everybody had time to take stock to read these things from their own front rooms, bedrooms, seeing what was going on, on the telly – worldwide as well as locally.

We had change imposed on us because of the pandemic and then the secondary change because of George Floyd’s murder as well. But we went to do something about it because that’s what we’re about. We all want change and we have to do the change now.

How are we going to make that change? Who does it affect in the UK? And how can we extend this globally to create that wave of change so that is what this charter also shows, is that we do need allies as well, urging people to find out how they can be a good ally, not just saying that they’re an ally, but actually being a good ally. It’s like having the support of your friends when you’re going through a tough situation, and I’ve been through it myself in the last year. I hope we don’t operate too much in silos and aim to see where the connectivity can be.

In terms of the point I feel is most crucial, I actually have a couple. To begin with, I think where it talks about decolonising collections, and the colonial narratives about objects in museums. A lot of my work has been about that over the last decade. In the last three or four years, I have written more about it, and put it, out there to the world to see, such as a paper I wrote in 2018 on decolonising natural history collections.

Many people do not understand what decolonising is about, the word is used in so many ways. I initially used the word myself as a hook to get people’s attention. The true meaning of the word I feel is to bring attention to inequality, wanting social justice, restitution. I hope people are proactive and act upon the meaning of the word and embed it into their practice. Decolonisation is not about taking away any history, it’s about adding to it, enhancing it. It’s a good thing.

For the second point of the charter, it was the point about holistically protecting the mental health, well-being and life of the Black workforce in relation to navigating and challenging racism and the managing of stress and trauma. A lot of things have been traumatic and within museums themselves this is because of some of the stories and narratives on display. As I mentioned I think it’s vital for allies to support those Black workers within the sector while doing this work and for it not always to be someone who looks like me doing the work. So, it’s all about making it a better space for people to work in and to be in, for all of us to be honest.

We have been living through challenging times as we continue to navigate life in the age of coronavirus. How have you managed these difficulties in your daily life?

Well, as I talk to you, I’m looking out onto my lovely balcony, there’s a grand view of different flat blocks and we’ve got a communal garden as a central space. Actually, one of the best things about lockdown has been getting to know the neighbours a lot more and also neighbours getting to know where I work, saying ‘I want to come to the Natural History Museum’. I’m an advocate for the getting to know your neighbours and on that theme there was a resident who is a keep-fit instructor in the communal garden doing with loud music one day, it gathered momentum and we all joined in from our balconies every day at 11am for a few months. It was great, we all did a round of applause at the end of it. It’s been lovely getting to know my community much better. We’ve been discussing nature in the garden, different trees, some of the trees I didn’t even realise are herb trees, there’s some sections of raspberries growing and other things, we even decided to create a compost area at the back of the garden.

People have been recognising me from TV and radio as well. I went to do a bit of shopping when a woman came up to me. Due to the way they came and then the way they positioned themselves in front of me I was a bit unsure of what was going to happen, they called my name, I replied ‘yes’, quite cautiously because I didn’t recognise the neighbor, I thought she might be just going into the block of flats, but I wasn’t sure and then she said, “Are you Miranda? Oh, I heard you on Radio 4”, she explained that she was the radio producer for another show and then we started to have a chat about what it’s like to ‘work at the museum. The most feedback I got was when I appeared on TV in the Royal Institution Christmas lectures in 2020.I did a small bit as part of Professor Chris Jackson’s lecture, and the number of messages through Twitter and WhatsApp was a bit overwhelming.

Another thing that I’ve been doing during lockdown was being able to support my organisation because I live about an hour’s walk away from our off-site storage facility. I was going to the facility when we all went into lockdown in March 2020 for about six or seven months, once a week, just checking on the site, checking the collections, not just mine, but those of other colleagues making sure everything was secure and in the right environmental conditions. By walking that much I realized I actually had the legs to walk there because in the last decade or more, probably the even the last 20 years, I was taking the bus probably because I was so caught up in the whole rat race. Sometimes you don’t stop and think about small things when set in a pattern.

During the first lockdown early morning walks to the collections facility was just magical because there was hardly anybody on the streets. I could observe the birds and the plants, I could have sworn that the dandelions and buttercups were growing twice as big in the grass verges. I don’t know if any botanist has been doing research into this but it could have been the result of no-one constantly trampling across the plants, and them being less  affected by the pollution due to lower use of cars.

In your opinion, what is the best online/virtual exhibition you saw whilst Museums and Galleries were closed? 

I am definitely someone who likes to see things in person I don’t think I have spent much time looking at an online exhibition, though there is a gallery in Bradford called ‘Impressions Gallery’. I became aware of them because they asked me to be part of a panel event for their Seedscape Symposium. They had a really cool exhibition linked to it called Seedscapes: Future-Proofing Nature. I did actually spend a lot of time online for that one, it used technology in a way I hadn’t seen before, I would say that that was my favourite so far.

In-between lockdowns I went to the British Museum to see the new interpretation of the bust of Hans Sloane in a case with several artefacts from his time collecting during the period of colonialism and slavery in Jamaica. It was a unique experience to be in a museum that didn’t have any queues or many people in there.

During that time in between lockdowns last year I went to see a lot of things. I went everywhere and especially loved Among the Trees at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank, I think it might have been the last day of that exhibition, I really felt I needed to be amongst the trees, to be in nature. It was the best exhibition ever for me at that point, just to wander around the galleries and look at the different artistic interpretations about trees.

What is your proudest achievement so far in your career?

The most recent one is coming number 17 out of 30 on the Women’s Hour Power List 2020: Our Planet. At the official online meetup, it was a strange one because winners were nominated by members of the public so many of us didn’t expect to be in the list at all. I was really surprised to be there because I am not famous, but I came in number 17, which was higher than some of the TV presenters doing nature programmes already. It was lovely to meet loads of other women that are doing some amazing things with nature, the environment, some activist campaigner concerning pollution and all sorts of other environmental causes. There was Caroline Lucas, the MP there as well, who was number one on the list, to see her in the same call was amazing,  inspiring me to go out to create a good network with these amazing women.

The other thing I was proud of recently was to be recognised in the 2020 book 100 Great Black Britons, listed alphabetically and again, people were voting for me since the end of 2019 and into the beginning of 2020. I didn’t know who was in the book until Sandra Shakespeare (Founder of the Black British Museum Project), who had a copy of the book said, ‘oh, you’re in the book’, and then she sent me a picture on her phone, and I thought, ‘oh wow I’ve got get a copy of that’. It’s the weirdest thing because I’m in there with historical figures, athletes and famous people. To be part of a group of 100 great Black Britons is just mind blowing. So, both those two things have happened in the last year where I ironically haven’t been doing a lot in person apart from working from home online during a pandemic.

In addition to being Chair of the Culture& Board, you are Principal Curator (Invertebrate Zoology) at the Natural History Museum, and a founding member of Museum Detox. Tell us about these organisations and if they have any exciting projects in the coming months?

It’s my 30th work anniversary in November at the Natural History Museum so I’ve been there a long time, the museum has a wonderful exhibition Fantastic Beasts: The wonder of Nature which has been given an extended run. It involves linking real-life animals in nature to mythical beasts and the incredible abilities shared in the wizarding world. It seems so long ago since working on these things due to the pandemic, so I can’t remember what specimens I have in there. Oh, and we have, Our Broken Planet: How We Got Here and Ways to Fix It; all about climate change and what we can do about it. It’s not just, a doom and gloom story running through the exhibition, it’s about being mindful of our actions and there is hope we can make changes. We are existing in a planetary emergency, and this Natural History Museum exhibition is trying to create advocates for the planet. I have some jellyfish specimens that are going to be displayed in there.

While we’ve been in lockdown, I have been working with the museum, looking at our interpretation, to make things more inclusive as a result of the Black Lives Matter campaign. The work involves acknowledging that the founding collections were collected in a colonial context, and working out what that means for our institution; looking through how we write text, who is acknowledged in the past in terms specimen collection and making sure we’re able to do something a bit more proactively about it in the museum spaces.

The work is definitely ongoing, some things we were able to realise when the museum opened briefly back In August 2020 and we had a statement acknowledging colonialism and that was positioned in some of the gallery spaces. Accompanying the statement, we also had a website link where people could find more information about the museum’s diversity and inclusion policy and work, I think it’s really important that the public are able to comment and have a conversation with the museum as we want to move forward as a safe, inclusive and representative space respecting and valuing multiple perspectives.

It’s not just about public-facing work, but also about having those difficult conversations with colleagues resulting in a positive culture shift as well. We are having a series of sessions in-house called Diverse Voices, where so far there have been prominent Black and Brown speakers that have come in to talk to all museum staff online about their life experiences. I held an in-conversation with The Hon Stuart Lawrence which was the most nerve wracking, with mixed emotions in my heart because we all know what the Lawrence family has had to go through. It’s amazing to hear from Stuart, how he’s going forward as an individual, he’s just published a book Silence is Not an Option: You can impact the world for change Stuart is an advocate for empathy and change. The book is aimed at teenagers, but I think it’s a book that all parents and people should read, I think we could all be a bit more empathetic and understanding; and that definitely helps with understanding what racism is. Just understanding and being kind to the diversity of people in general.

For Museum Detox, as a founding member, it seems so long ago in 2014, I remember getting an email from Sara Wajid when she was Head of Engagement at Royal Museum Greenwich, asking if there are any Black and Brown people that work in the sector that could be part of the group. There are so few of us in permanent roles, and there are not enough roles for people in general within the sector, so if you’re already in the minority it’s then an even smaller percentage representation. I still can’t believe this, but I am in terms of natural history myself and a male colleague (serving 30 and 35 years respectively) are probably the longest serving Black natural science curators I can think of in the UK.

It’s difficult being a minority and I sometimes wonder if the sector has gone backwards because when I joined, I wasn’t even thinking about it. I can honestly say that at that point I didn’t feel discriminated against I was just a person looking for a job. And then I would say in the last 20 years, it’s gone backwards. It might be to do with the increase in anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies nationally over that time and of course society impacts on the sector, including the anxieties around unemployment, the Brexit debate and about what the UK should be. The Windrush scandal has affected those that have been resident in and contributed to the UK economy like my parents and grandparents who came from the Caribbean in the 50s and 60s. It’s not easy to change an internal culture when you have all of that to contend with.

In terms of Museum Detox, we have been doing a lot of work supporting the members and providing access to leadership training. During the lockdown we have been offering a lot of mentoring and letting each other know about job postings, and also trying to uplift and encourage members to apply for roles.

Some of the founding members have also been part of important high-level discussions, including myself within our own institutions in terms of equality, diversity, inclusion and anti-racism, there’s been a lot of work around that and encouraging the wider network to be part of those conversations.

Image: Miranda Lowe.