Matter of course

Julie Nightingale, 01.03.2018
With the focus of programmes shifting over the years, it is vitally important to pick one that fits with your overall career goals, says Julie Nightingale
There are 90 postgraduate museum-related courses listed on Ucas, the university course admissions system, so if you’re in the market for a master’s, there’s no shortage of choice Museum studies as a taught postgraduate subject combining practical and theoretical study became established in the 1970s and the number of programmes has grown steadily since.

Some universities now offer museum studies alongside cultural, heritage or art gallery courses, setting museums in a wider context. Others have focused on areas such as museum practice, curation and interpretation.

This breadth and depth reflects the continuing interest in museum work as a career and the demand for courses that offer both an intellectual challenge and job-orientated skills. But courses are just one of many routes that people can take to move into the workplace.

Emerging trends

Most museum studies courses have a clear vocational focus, encouraging – if not requiring – students to volunteer at a museum to gain experience.

Opportunities to work on actual exhibitions, shows and events are also increasingly common. At the University of Birmingham, students doing the MA in art history and curating have the chance to co-curate a public exhibition.

They work with venues such as the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Royal Collection Trust and Grand Union gallery and studios, learning how to work with curators, commission art, and handle contemporary and historic collections.

How museums address wider socio-political concerns has emerged as a key area of thought in the sector and is reflected in the increased focus some courses place on institutions’ social role, with elements on activism, ethics and globalisation coming to the fore.

“Human rights, social justice, access and equality have all been given increased attention as museum research and practice in these areas have moved centre stage,” says Richard Sandell, a professor of museum studies at the University of Leicester, which offers an MA in socially engaged practice in museums and galleries.

“It is more important than ever that practitioners engage with these issues and understand their capacity to support museums in contributing to a more just, caring and equitable society.”

Management focus

Beyond museological skills and knowledge, programmes are also highlighting the importance of understanding the management side of museums. This includes looking at how an organisation is run effectively, its revenue-generating and commercial operations, and what characterises good leadership.

Krista Baker, the front-of-house manager at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, chose the MA in art gallery and museum studies at the University of Manchester in part because of its emphasis on management.

“The management module was under-subscribed,” she says. “The majority of my course mates chose to do curation modules instead. But the management side of things is incredibly important as it’s transferable across the sector.”

Birmingham City University introduced its MA in innovation and leadership in museum practice in 2016-17, co-delivered with Birmingham Museums Trust, to reflect this growing need for museum professionals to be “multi-skilled, innovative and commercially aware,” according to Beth Derbyshire, the course director.

“The reason for the emphasis on leadership was to develop a course that encourages students to look at organisational innovation and leadership in the sector, rather than at personal leadership skills,” she says.

Choosing a course

Application deadlines, which are given on course websites, vary and there may be more than one start date in the year.

Before applying, think about what you want from a course, then look for one that matches your criteria, as they vary in content, focus, teaching styles and the weighting given to theory and practice.

Look at jobs in the sector that attract you, then study the curriculum of courses you are interested in. Is there flexibility in the coursework assignments to tailor your work to areas you want to end up in?

Look at the opportunities for placements and work experience provided through the course. Even if you are already working in a museum, a programme that offers the chance to do a placement can offer a different perspective on museum practice.

  • Are you looking for a taught course or a research-based one?
  • Do you want to do it full-time or part-time? How much contact time does it have with teaching staff? If you need to work to fund your studies or if you are doing the MA for professional development, a part-time course may be a better option.
  • Are there opportunities to meet, work with and be mentored by professionals?
  • Think about where you want to live. What opportunities do the course and city offer?

Links and downloads

Courses guide and listings 2018 (pdf)