Learning curves - Museums Association

Learning curves

How effective are postgraduate museum studies courses in launching people's careers in the sector? John Holt talks to some former students to find out
They don’t teach you camera poses on postgraduate museum courses, but seasoned professionals aim to cover most other angles in order to sustain students through a career in the cultural sector.

So Elizabeth Scott (pictured above) was entering unknown territory when she was one of the staff members chosen by photographer Tom Hunter to model for a promotional exhibition heralding the new Galleries of Modern London at the Museum of London, which opened last month.

“I had never worn false eyelashes before and I have not worn orange since,” laughs Scott as she remembers the makeover, the garish Sixties garb and being called for her close-up outside a Lyons Corner House frontage by the only artist to have a photography show at the National Gallery.

Scott, a project assistant at the new galleries, was alerted to the allure of the sector when she babysat for a museum director who regaled her with exciting stories of dusty collections and international exhibitions.

Following a degree in archaeology, she was a Museums Association Diversify scheme entrant on the museums and galleries management course at City University.

After enjoying a three-month work placement at the Museum of London, she was delighted to secure her current role while recognising it wasn’t likely to be the best-paid or most secure job in the world.

“When Diversify wrote to me about the interview they included a booklet with the pay scales as if to say, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’

People kept saying there were dire times ahead with less money and fewer jobs, but City University and my job have been a stimulating crash course in curatorship,” says Scott, who is still facing an uncertain future.

“My original year-long contract has been extended four times and I’m here until the new galleries open [last month], but the museum doesn’t know if the funding will enable me to stay. I’m looking for jobs again.”

Despite an Oxford BA and voluntary work experience in a regimental museum, Mark Tindle realised he needed to have a more disciplined grounding in the ways of the cultural sector he desperately wanted to join.

He enlisted for a one-year course at the International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies at Newcastle University.

“It was excellent; strong on theory but also very practical and a very sensible way of providing a proper taste of the workplace,” says Tindle, who is now collections and access officer at North East Lincolnshire Museums Service.

“With so many graduates coming out of museum courses, there’s huge competition for posts, and a mixture of the qualification with some solid work experience is essential,” Tindle says. “Not only did it make me a better candidate, I was also able to be more useful, more quickly when I found a job.”

Tindle took the bold decision to go AWOL from the final three months of his course. “My previous experience of dissertations wasn’t good and I didn’t see the value of such an academic exercise rounding off what had been a practical programme,” he says. “And it gave me a three-month headstart in the market ahead of my 100 or so classmates.”

While some of his Newcastle contemporaries managed to secure interesting and fulfilling museum posts, others struggled to find contentment, adds Tindle.

“One has had a series of short-term contracts all over the country. She’s had to do lots of travelling and is still applying for jobs; she says it’s very tough with so many well-qualified people on the market.”

One of Tindle’s many international classmates was hired by the trust that hosted her work placement in the UK before she had to go back home for personal reasons. On returning to the UK she found the economy on the verge of collapse but she’s still seeking another post in the cultural sector.

“I understand that urge completely, it’s just something you have to do. Museums are a very strange itch,” Tindle says.

As more seats of learning introduce potentially money-spinning museum courses, the very best programmes are those that evolve to meet the ever-changing requirements of students and the sector, says Richard Sandell, the director of the school of museum studies at Leicester University.

Leicester has developed postgraduate courses to complement its core curriculum in topics such as digital heritage, learning and visitor studies and interpretation, while beefing up its professional development offering with the help of sector heavyweights and high-achieving alumni.

“While many of the new courses share our values, others that may be driven by university finances are not collaborative with, or responsive to, the sector,” says Sandell.

“Students should look for that connection and find out if the staff still play an active part in museum life rather than simply serve the university,” says Sandell, who reveals that about three-quarters of the UK graduates from the class of 2009 at Leicester were in paid museum jobs six months later.

Nazia Ali, now a full-time assistant curator at Thinktank, Birmingham, completed her MA at Leicester in 2006.

“It was very academic, an approach I like,” she says. “The vast majority in my year were overseas students who were there for the reputation of the English education system and I think they enjoyed the course and the opportunity to go back home and do the work thing for themselves.”

The intense competition for jobs hit home when Ali attended her first Thinktank interview for a part-time enabler’s job. On arrival, she found fellow students from her course also waiting their turn.

“It was nice to see them again, but it was horrible to be rivals for the same job,” she says. “There are so many graduates; I think more and more people believe that actual experience can have more value than a master’s and are prepared to work voluntarily to get a foot in the door that way.”

She says that some of the newer enablers at Thinktank are PhD students and that epitomises the nature of the work now.

Not everyone who undertakes a museum course is destined for collections or curatorship, however. Two years after completing her MSc in museums studies at Leicester, Victoria McGuinness became a project manager on the £61m redevelopment of the Ashmolean in Oxford after an initial stint in a similar role at the museum at Knossos for the British School at Athens.

“The course enabled us to test different areas of museum work in order to see what interested us most and I was able to experience project management,” says McGuinness, who is doing her bit for today’s students by taking on interns from the Leicester course.

“Last year I had seven interns working in various areas in the museum, particularly the installation of the 35 new galleries as part of the Ashmolean redevelopment and I’ll be taking more this year.”

Keeping in touch with her alma mater is also a two-way relationship for Alex Woodall who taught RE in secondary schools before undertaking her MA in art gallery studies. She is now interpretation development officer at Manchester City Galleries.

“I have enjoyed keeping up with former lecturers as I have a strong research interest in interpretation as a discipline,” she says. “I host a placement student to work on interpretation projects during the summer and I have also contributed to the new distance learning MA in learning and visitor studies in a unit about object handling.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that students now have to wait longer and make more sacrifices to gain that first museum job, says Neville Stankley, head of Nottingham Trent University’s centre for museum and heritage management.

“Someone who graduated from here last summer has only just secured a job with the British Museum. We pull no punches with our students about how difficult it is to gain entry to the sector.

"Just as we don’t accept students who haven’t done voluntary work, we won’t accept anyone with a rose-tinted view of simply using a history degree to get a museum job.”

Stankley is currently working with the Renaissance programme to explore alternative ways of preparing people for the workplace through a more flexible approach to work experience.

Indeed many universities are redesigning their courses to help more graduates into work as the effects of the recession and funding cuts continue to bite, according to Maurice Davies, head of policy and communication at the Museums Association (MA).

“The University of Manchester is forging stronger relationships with local museums particularly for the training of people already in work, while almost half the students on the University of East Anglia course are trainees paid to work for half the week at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts,” he says.

He admits that the economics are getting more difficult with fees rising for master’s degrees on top of undergraduate debt, but adds: “The MA is also examining alternative entry routes and the Diversify scheme has refocused to look closely at the socio-economic backgrounds of candidates other than the traditional middle-class folk with humanities degrees.”

One thing that shows no sign of decreasing is the eagerness of higher education institutions to jump aboard the already overcrowded postgrad gravy train. “I’m contacted a couple of times a year by people wanting advice on setting up another course,” says Davies.

Mahtab Hussain, meanwhile, has good reason to look back on his MA in museums and galleries management at City University with immense satisfaction. His interest in design was awakened by his work placement at small council-run museums and he changed direction to take up a job as design assistant at the National Portrait Gallery.

“Although my career path changed I’ve found I received some transferable management skills from the course,” he says. Like Elizabeth Scott, Hussain’s temporary contract will shortly run out and his professional future looks uncertain.

But he was also introduced to a new experience no museum course promotes in its prospectus. “While working on a project, I fell in love with a colleague and now we’re getting married,” he says.

John Holt is a freelance journalist

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