Course fishing

Julie Nightingale, 01.03.2017
The label ‘museum studies’ covers a huge range and variety of courses
A job in a museum remains a highly attractive career choice, but competition is fierce for anyone hoping to be the next Maria Balshaw, who is soon to succeed Nicholas Serota as Tate’s director, or Tristram Hunt, who was recently given the top job at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The good news for people looking to boost their chances of getting a foot on the ladder or moving up it by undertaking a postgraduate qualification is that there are now more opportunities than ever in the higher education marketplace.

The Ucas website lists more than 300 museum-related master’s courses for 2017-18, along with other postgraduate options such as certificates and diplomas, across the UK. So there are lots of options on offer for students, with different content, formats and teaching models. The government’s higher education expansion plans, in the form of privately funded universities, are likely to mean there will be even more options in the future.

What’s on offer?

Your choice of course will be shaped by your interests and your longer-term plans – a first job, promotion or change of career, perhaps, or the chance to carry out doctoral research or play an active part in museums’ changing role in society.

Museum studies programmes – such as those at Leicester, Aberdeen, UEA, Glasgow, Newcastle or UCL – give a solid grounding in the history and theory of museums alongside practical training in areas such as curation, education and outreach, visitor services, design and conservation.

Some courses tell you exactly what they do: care of collections is the focus of Cardiff’s MSc, Durham offers museum and artefact studies, while other specialisms include design for exhibitions and museums at Lincoln, and museum curating with photography at Sussex.

Elsewhere, the business side of the profession is emphasised. Goldsmiths, University of London, runs a postgraduate certificate course focusing on entrepreneurship; Kingston’s MA explores museums and the creative economy.

What should I look for?

If your heart is set on being a curator, find a course that reflects and builds on your particular passion. But keep in mind that there are many other roles in museums today, including finance, education, conservation, marketing and audience engagement.

If you’re not sure, do your research. Visit museums, read up on a field you think you may be drawn to and talk to people who work in it. A stint of volunteering in your local museum should provide a feel for what the work involves.

The quality and reputation of the university is another consideration. The National Student Survey does not include postgraduate student feedback but its results can still offer a sense of how students rate the institution and the teaching it provides.

Academic league tables are not as important as finding a place with a culture that matches your specific needs and aspirations, though. If you fancy the PhD route, look for a programme that offers research opportunities. If a role in museum education, conservation or fundraising fits your bill, find one that will equip you with the appropriate skills and experience.

You should also think about the wider community in which the college or university works. What are the institutions it collaborates with, what kind of local history does it draw on and what’s the calibre of the specialists who work there?
 
In cities such as Liverpool and Manchester, the universities are part of a cultural network of art, music, theatre and media. Sussex has Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, big country houses and coastal culture. London obviously has many attractions, but not the kind of regional museum where everything is connected to an area’s social, economic and cultural history.

Universities are increasingly expected to do more about employability for their graduates – look for links with the profession, such as staff who work in a museum or who have up-to-date networks of fellow practitioners. Ask what sort of help is available with placements, who the visiting lecturers are and how theoretical teaching
is linked to the practical.

And finally

What makes a good MA student in the museum field? Someone creative, curious, willing to speak up and think creatively. And remember, postgraduate study is not an excuse to be a student for another year. It’s a chance to pursue a passion.

Checklist

- Look for a course’s unique selling point. Does it match your passion?
- Think about where you want to be in five years’ time and what you need to be able to get there
- Ask about hands-on experience – you won’t get a job without it
- Is the university part of a community that reflects your interests?
- Are the staff the right mix of practitioners and academics?