60 Seconds With…Cathy Brett at Leatherhead Museum

Cathy Brett is a visual storyteller, illustrator, educator and the new curator at Leatherhead Museum where she is spearheading an excitingly different era. In this 60 Seconds With interview, we found out more about her work and her plans to bring our local history to life.

FP: Tell us about your career as an artist.

CB: I went to art college when I left school, intending to study theatre design or costume, but ended up in the fashion business. There followed a varied career as a freelance ‘creative’, three decades of travelling all over the world and through every sector of the design industry, from retail to magazine publishing and trend forecasting to packaging graphics. I eventually narrowed my focus to illustration, firstly editorial (magazines and newspapers) and then children’s books.

A regular part-time lecturing job at UCA Epsom (around 2000) allowed the financial stability to finish an illustrated teen novel I’d been working on since the mid-90s, and I was lucky enough to get it accepted, first by a terrific agent and then by Headline publishing. There followed a wonderful and exhausting decade of multiple book deals, 5 in all, until I ran out of steam and concentrated on illustrating other people’s books (a much easier task).

I still get illustration jobs but in recent years have found myself involved in more collaborative projects, working with heritage or conservation groups, putting my 30+ years of experience to good use by bringing other creatives together, promoting arts activities, facilitating events and exhibitions.

FP: How did your role as Leatherhead museum curator come about?

CB: I did a little project with the Leatherhead Museum a few years ago, when I was studying for an MA. I designed an exhibit to celebrate 70s of the L&DLHS (Leatherhead & District Local History Society) and enjoyed it so much that when a volunteer mentioned last year that the role of curator was vacant, I agreed to take it on.

The Cottage Kitchen interactive exhibit


FP: What’s the decision process for choosing exhibits?

CB: We have to be relevant and balance education with entertainment. It’s not enough for a local museum to simply display artefacts, we have a responsibility to serve our diverse community and to engage all visitors of all ages. So, we get ideas from both past and present; what interests people now, and what are the preoccupations or concerns of the people of our town. Dinosaurs, dance music, river pollution, royalty or Jane Austen – all might inspire exhibitions or museum activities.

FP: What are you currently working on?

CB: We have the privilege of curating the work of a brilliant local artist, Stuart Stanley, this summer. Leatherhead art-lovers will know his fine art work – beautiful landscape paintings in oil or acrylic – but few will realise that his previous career was as head of designer at the Thorndike Theatre (now the Leatherhead Theatre) in the 70s and 80s. We will be launching a special exhibit in our Gallery at the end of July of several theatre set models and costume designs, with a special Private View Garden Party to rival the Royal Academy!

Leatherhead Museum poster (Roman Villa Exhibit)


FP: What do you love about your role?

CB: Coming up with ideas for new exhibits is wonderful, but I think I most like meeting our visitors, particularly children. I love it when our younger visitors are amazed by simple things that we adults take for granted, like old-style telephones or kitchens without fridges. I enjoy our outreach events too, taking boxes of museum artefacts into schools or care homes, and sharing our fascinating local history with our community.

FP: Has anything surprised you?

CB: I think it’s finding how interesting our local history actually is. Every day we’re walking in the footsteps of astonishing people who did amazing things.

FP: What’s been the most satisfying and challenging part of your work?

CB: The biggest challenge at the museum is funding. We’re entirely funded by donations (History Society and ‘Friend’s’ membership and visitor contributions), and staffed by volunteers. We’ve become very clever at recycling or repurposing, while keeping costs to a minimum. Our task this year is to expand the museum shop to bring in a little more revenue so we can stage more events and workshops, but also to continue to maintain and manage the 17th century building, Hampton Cottage. It’s a year-round labour of love for our dedicated volunteers.

FP: Tell us about one interesting item in the collection.

CB: There’s a very lovely Roman brooch in our River Room (upstairs) that I think is gorgeous, but I’d have to say my favourite is one of our most recent acquisitions. It’s something called a Stanhope – a Victorian novelty souvenir item set in the top of a tiny bone acorn sewing case (downstairs in our Made in Leatherhead Room). The ‘Stanhope’ is a chip of glass, just 2 millimetres across in which 6 micro-images of Leatherhead are set. It’s a clever photographic technique, probably an early version of micro-film, and can only be viewed if held up to the light and close to your eye. I had to take the word of curatorial team members with better eyesight, because I’ve not been able to see it, even with a magnifying glass.

Jane Austen’s Leatherhead exhibit (writing slope and goose feather quills)

FP: Who or what inspires you?

CB: My curatorial team. They’re all much more talented and knowledgeable than me!

FP: What’s your favourite museum to visit other than your own?

CB: The Weald and Downland Museum in Sussex is a favourite. But I rather like the Cartoon Museum in London, too (I create comics and graphic novels when I’m not curating or facilitating art projects).

FP: What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve received?

CB: Take the risk, what’s the worst that could happen?

Comic for Ashtead Rye Meadows Wetlands conservation project by Cathy Brett

FP: What advice would you give to a budding artist or curator?

CB: Definitely the advice above for any aspiring artist. For curators my advice is volunteer at your local gallery or museum, offer to help in your spare time, just a few hours a week, make the tea and do simple tasks and you will learn so much from the curator(s), just listening, being there and seeing how everything works.

For more info about Cathy and her work visit cathybrett.co.uk

Discover Leatherhead Museum by visiting leatherheadhistory.org/museum


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