Camilla Nichol is the Chief Executive of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT), based in Cambridge in the UK. UKAHT is a not-for-profit charity responsible for the preservation of historic sites on the Antarctic Peninsula and delivering a public programme to engage and inspire people with stories of human endeavour in Antarctica. As Chief Executive she is responsible for running the charity, leading a team to deliver the Antarctic operations; a seasonal operation at Port Lockroy and the ongoing heritage conservation programme, to deliver a range of public-facing activities to reach more people with this heritage and to engage them with Antarctica more widely – these could be museum exhibitions, artist events, talks and lectures, theatre performances, the list is endless. Another important aspect of her role is in championing Antarctic heritage in the wider context of Antarctica, in the heritage and cultural sectors and in advising policy-makers on matters concerned with heritage in Antarctica. Originally Camilla trained as a geologist at the University of Edinburgh before then pursuing postgraduate study in Museum Studies, collecting qualifications in gemmology and museum studies along the way.
Camilla is involved in the wider museums/heritage sector as a trustee of two other charities, external examiner for a museum studies Masters course and recently the Museums Accreditation Committee. She is interested in heritage policy, in how heritage can be an effective lens for wider engagement with science, history and the environment, and the positive impact understanding heritage can have on contemporary issues.
1. What are the primary responsibilities and tasks in your current job?
As chief executive of UKAHT I am responsible for the smooth, effective and accountable running of the charity, I am answerable to a fully-engaged Board of Trustees and together we devise and I deliver our strategy to engage more people with Antarctica through the extraordinary stories of human endeavour on the continent. I lead a small core team but work in partnership with a range of other organisations and individuals to achieve our aims. There are a lot of practical matters; financial responsibilities, charity governance, fundraising, communications, health and safety etc which underpin the bigger questions of heritage conservation, Antarctic operations, audience development, stakeholder engagement and policy making, but it is a good blend of responsibilities and stimulating in its interdisciplinary nature.
2. How did you get this position?
At the time I was appointed through a head hunting/application process I had been working in museums and heritage for around 20 years – in local government, university and independent sectors. My previous role I was second in command of a large local authority museum service and had been involved in a major transformation of that organisation and was ready to take on a new challenge, maybe at the helm of an organisation. UKAHT was looking for someone with a blend of expertise – leadership, heritage, public engagement, strategy and operational awareness. The Antarctic sector, whilst it had always been a significant interest to me, was a new world, so I was stepping out of the familiar territory of museums, where I had a reputation and network into one where I needed to build one. The trustees evidently could see that my professional experience was a good fit, but also that my academic background and interests (geology) meant I could also offer a scientific perspective and a familiarity which would help when building relationships across the Antarctic sector.
3. Had you always intended to pursue a non-academic career? If not, what led you to it?
It seemed the best fit for my interests and personality. But during my degree I developed a passion for using my knowledge and expertise to communicate these wonderful things to as wide an audience as possible. I am inspired by science and how it can help all of us see the world differently and I felt that my passion and skills were more suited to that public engagement, in my case through museum collections and heritage, than in a research environment. I do have an affinity with university-based research and teaching and throughout my career have ensured close alignment between my work and workplace with the local universities; that may be collaborative projects, supervising PhD projects, guest lecturing, external examining or providing opportunities for student placements and projects. So academia has never been far from me.
4. What would you have done differently to be better prepared for your current position? Which choices in the past were successful?
Throughout my career, striking a balance between developing specialist expertise along with keeping a general interest in broader issues and subjects has always been fundamental. To be the Keeper of Geology at the Yorkshire Museum, for example, (the oldest such position in the world) had certain expectations of knowledge, expertise and authority which I needed to hone and project. However, being curious and developing skills ranging from pickling body parts in an anatomy collection, technical skills – electrical work, carpentry, painting, to the finer points of the history of Scottish football, medieval jewellery, forensic science and contemporary art, has meant I can enter into meaningful dialogue with colleagues and partners, I can get a job done, I can understand others’ perspectives and ultimately earn respect and trust from those I work with and we can succeed together. I am naturally curious, have wide interests and love getting involved, meeting people and learning new skills. Turning this personality trait towards some of the more mundane aspects of work is important, so developing the same enthusiasm for the Chart of Accounts is critical, if perhaps less exciting.
So, whilst a PhD might have been hugely beneficial in many regards, and rewarding, I believe that my mixed portfolio of experience has benefitted me in the long run.
5. Are there opportunities in your working place for candidates having a PhD degree?
Yes, in fact some do. If someone comes to us with a PhD in their background it tells me things about them - tenacity, work ethic, commitment, knowledge, communication skills, the ability to promote a cause or position, writing skills. These are all great skills and essential in the workplace. You don’t have to have one to work for us but having one is no hindrance.
6. Do you have any advice for working towards this career?
As I have perhaps alluded in the previous sections – striking that balance between being expert is something along with a strong base of other skills and knowledge will enable to you to get the job done – sometimes it is down to you to get that display painted! Key to all of this, of course, is building for yourself a good network of collaborators, colleagues, mentors and sounding boards. If you don’t have the answer, give yourself access to those who might – learning from your peers is where some of the most valuable learning can be found and you also take these people with you through your entire career, which in itself provides support, inspiration and the occasional therapeutic beer!