I was at Saint Aidan’s College at Durham University yesterday to receive an Athena SWAN bronze award on behalf of colleagues in the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (ESALA) at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA). The Equality Challenge Unit’s Athena SWAN Charter Awards recognize institutional commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research.
I was there with colleagues from the University of Edinburgh’s Schools of Clinical Sciences; Molecular, Genetic and Population Health Sciences; Health in Social Science and Psychology, who were also receiving bronze awards that day.
We heard motivational accounts of pioneering gender equality work in other UK University STEMM departments and were interested to learn that the Equality Challenge Unit is extending the scheme to the Arts and Humanities and to a consideration of other equality issues beyond gender. It was impressive to note the way in which cultural and procedural changes which sometimes appear relatively minor can have a huge impact both on career progression, well-being and a positive working environment.
In my former employment in a national museum in London (in a policy environment very differently focused to the post financial crisis context we find ourselves in today) I was closely involved in the highly progressive approach taken by the then Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the Museums Association and the Heritage Lottery Fund to address inequality and lack of diversity in relation to audiences, programmes and collections. My sense is that our cultural sector has benefitted enormously from the legacy of those years. It is enlightening to see similar initiatives embedding themselves in higher education.
The day in Durham also offered an opportunity to engage with the city’s extraordinary architecture. The ceremony itself took place in the refectory of a college building designed by ECA alumnus Sir Basil Spence. Less well known than his more expansive schemes for the Universities of Sussex, Southampton, Cambridge and Edinburgh, Saint Aidan’s nevertheless exhibited the same sense of unity with its landscape, a noble claim to an inspiring humanism, and an elegant fusing of traditional forms and materials with the benefits of technology and an aspirational modernism.
As I walked down the hill and across the river into the cathedral precinct I was reminded that living and working in Spence’s inspired buildings was an experience not so far removed from that of the medieval orders who followed St Cuthbert’s body to his shrine at Durham: contemplative, improving and focused on the needs of the community rather than the individual. Durham Cathedral’s soaring vaulted spaces, its massive Romanesque nave and imposing position above the wooded Wear are both a tribute to the enduring achievements of humanity and a symbol of humility that must have served as a formidable example for Spence and his generation.