Your wisest course of action
There are more than 70 postgraduate courses available at universities and higher-education institutions in the UK that enable you to explore the museum world. They range from well-established museum studies programmes and specialist courses in curatorship or conservation through to the “pick and mix” model.
Traditional three-term structures are being rethought, as more people look for part-time, distance-learning and other more flexible options.
Establish your criteria
Before you wade through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) database, think about your basic criteria: location, travelling distance, and whether you want to study part-time or full-time.
Are you looking for a course that is academically focused or one more geared to practice, with an academic slant? Most combine elements of the two but if you are looking at moving on to a PhD or research, you might seek out a course that retains a dissertation element, to enable you to develop academic skills.
Go to an open day to check out the facilities and talk to the staff about employability and cohort size. Ask to see the course learning outcomes for different modules that cover the skills, knowledge and attributes the course aims to develop.
Wider range of skills
The range of skills that a modern museum professional requires grows ever wider, and good postgraduate courses have evolved as a result.
Digital proficiencies – video, social media, data analysis and podcasting – have become a core element of museum work. Audience development has taken on a new dimension, reflecting the increased need to diversify audiences and make collections ever-more reflective and meaningful, as well as to aid museums’ role in promoting social justice and focusing on issues such as decolonisation and supporting activism.
In tight economic times, however, money and the ability to generate it means fundraising is a skill much in demand and increasingly taught.
“So many curators now are having to raise money for their projects or work with development departments that are tasked with doing so,” says Wendy Law, who teaches professional development skills and curatorial practice at the University of Edinburgh.
“They need to know where to get funding from, how to develop partnerships that bring in external money for a project, how to write strong applications and be aware of what different funders require.”
Who’s teaching the course?
Look at the staff who teach the programme. Is there a mix of academic and research expertise, and current experience in the field? Are any still working in museums or other areas within the sector?
This is important because it’s better if their knowledge of practice and developments in the sector is right up to date; they’ll also have networks of contacts within and between institutions that can assist their students in finding placements, internships and even jobs.
Most museum courses will expect you to do work experience and offer help securing placements. But do they offer “live” experiences as an assessed part of the course? Collaborating on real projects with museums and working alongside professionals gives an assignment real energy and authenticity.
Increasingly, there is the option to customise your studies, choosing from a menu of modules and designing a programme that may include recognition of work you are already involved in as “action learning”. If the programme you are looking at does not offer the chance to tailor your studies in this way, it’s worth asking whether the course would be open to more flexibility.
It’s important to remember, though, that a postgraduate course is an academic endeavour, not a purely vocational one. While the practical, hands-on component of a course is vital, it needs to be contextualised, according to Neil Curtis, the head of museums and special collections at the University of Aberdeen.
“The opportunity for academic reflection on practice should lie at the heart of museum studies programmes,” he says. “This means students need practical, personal and group-work projects that they are able to reflect on with reference to academic and professional literature.”
Alternatives to university
Other routes into the museum sector at a higher level have opened up in recent years. They include a limited number of apprenticeships at level 7 – equivalent to a master’s – in different fields.
A Historic Environment Advisor Apprenticeship is in development and would offer advanced training in providing specialist advice to organisations working with heritage assets. Apprenticeships are already available at level 4 (foundation degree level).
The University of Leicester and National Museums Liverpool run a joint, free online course on the Open University’s FutureLearn platform exploring the role museums play in society. It is suitable as preparation for a museums studies course or for professionals looking to update their skills.
The Museums Association offers an online learning package to members, Museum Essentials, covering key areas of museum practice. The first three courses, free to members, are on the subjects of ethics, working with collections and working with community partners.
But undertake a course only if it dovetails with your interests. If not, look further afield. A master’s is a commitment for at least a year – so pursue your passion.
Julie Nightingale is a freelance journalist