Life lessons

01.03.2017
Picking the right course means thinking about yourself – what do you need and where are you going? 
As the content of museum studies courses has changed over recent years, with a growing emphasis on museums’ role in society, the ways that programmes are taught have also been transformed.

Social impact

Leicester University’s museum studies department, which pioneered distance learning in the sector, has developed a part-time MA in Socially Engaged Practice in Museums and Galleries.

It explores socially driven practice through a blend of online lectures, seminars, tutorials and discussions and has two entry points each year, in April and October, as well as the option of undertaking part of the programme as a four-month standalone module.

Liverpool Hope University’s new MA in Museum and Heritage Studies also concentrates on the social impact of museums. Designed in collaboration with National Museums Liverpool, it looks at how museums address issues such as social inequality and racism, and looks at their role in human rights campaigning.

Employability

Employability is increasingly important, with many courses putting a focus on practical skills and often including assessed work placements as part of the qualification. It’s in tune with the needs of the profession and the desire of tutors – many of whom come from the working world of museums – to give students as rich an experience as possible
to equip them for the workplace.

Neil Curtis, head of museums at Aberdeen University, set up the MLitt Museum Studies course there in part because he was frustrated at the quality of job applications he received.

“People often knew the words to say but there was no spark,” he says. “They had digested the professional literature and could talk about good practice on paper but translating it into being enthusiastic and doing things in practice was lacking. Many people also showed a lack of flexibility.”

The programme is delivered from within the university museums, with Curtis’s apprenticeship model in mind. “It’s academic and theoretical in the first half but the core part of the second half relates to real work in museums, such as curating the summer exhibition or organising a public engagement event with a critical review attached.”

Understanding organisations

Goldsmiths in London offers a part-time postgraduate course in Museums and Galleries Entrepreneurship taught by Sylvia Lahav. Aimed at people already working in museums or looking to change career, it gives an understanding of how museums work as organisations and the relationship between departments through workshops and visits to Tate Modern, the Victoria and Albert Museum and other national museums and galleries.

Lahav says the skills required to work in a museum and gallery setting are broader than some students think. “When a student asks me if they should do an MA in art history for a museum career, I tell them to look at press, marketing or product design,” says Lahav. “Museums are very different organisations now.”

Holistic approach

At Sussex University, students on the Art History and Museum Curating MA are being prepared to go straight into a museum and be useful. “We are very focused on not just shoehorning them into jobs but providing the teaching, skillset and approach that will get them to be common-sense curators who are ethically, theoretically and historically informed in practice,” says senior lecturer Carolyn Sargentson.

“We set students curating assignments rather than essays; like curatorial descriptions of objects and webpage writing, work focused on encouraging them to write different kinds of documents for different kinds of people,” says Sargentson.

“We almost take a coaching modality and we don’t give them slide lectures much at all, if ever. They work in a lively, debate-driven context with each other.”
Jenny Haslett
Jenny Haslett, museum manager at the Northern Ireland War Memorial, Belfast, studied for a Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies MA at the University of Ulster.

What made you choose the course?

I was teaching textile classes in a local museum and volunteering with the National Trust on a conservation project, so it made sense to study locally. A few graduates recommended the course and I liked how the modules were structured over two days a week. The Exploring Heritage module was insightful and useful as an icebreaker while the Cultures of Curatorship and Exhibition and Learning modules, combined with my practical work experience, gave me confidence to seize every opportunity.

What was the most useful aspect?

The Cultures of Curatorship and the Exhibition and Learning modules. Studying these alongside gaining practical work experience meant that I felt ready to hit the ground running after graduation. I had the confidence to seize every opportunity because I hadn’t studied museum theory in isolation, I had developed the skills to put my ideas into practice.

Is it helping you in your current role as museum manager?

I refer to my learning and the experiences I gained from the Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies course almost daily in my work. The course introduced me to so many new ideas, places, exhibitions and – perhaps most importantly – people.

What advice would you give someone choosing a course?

Visit the campus, meet the staff and try to talk to other graduates. Consider the experience you already have and how you can build on that with appropriate voluntary work. And choose a dissertation topic you are passionate about.

Links

Courses guide and listings (pdf)