Maggie Appleton: ethics, diversity and social impact are important

Learning: then and now

Julie Nightingale, 01.03.2018
Two museum directors share memories of their museums studies courses and reveal how the knowledge gained from them informs their thinking today. By Julie Nightingale
In those far-off days before desktop publishing, design templates and digital editing, conveying information often relied on a more traditional medium. Letraset was a basic printing technique that involved applying individual typeface transfers to paper by hand, and it was an important part of museums studies courses in the 1970s.

“We learned to create our own posters for exhibitions and do simple print work. I played with a silkscreen for the first time and produced a great poster,” says Sam Mullins, the director of London Transport Museum, who did an MA in museum studies at the University of Leicester in the mid-1970s.

“However, I can remember using Letraset and concentrating so hard on getting everything lined up that I missed out a ‘u’ in museum.”

Letraset is no longer a valued part of his skillset and, thank goodness, the London Transport Museum’s posters are now rigorously spellchecked. But other elements of the course continue to underpin his thinking.

“I was volunteering and doing research at Salisbury Museum, where the director was a Leicester graduate,” says Mullins. “He encouraged me to apply for the course, saying it would result in a job. He described it as a licence to drive a museum.

“One of the attractions of the course was that the history optout was at the Centre for Local English History at Leicester, which was founded by WG Hoskins, the historian and writer who switched me on to local history in the first place.”

Mullins discovered that the museological part of the course took a more pragmatic approach. “It was about how to put on exhibitions, much less about governance, fundraising and income; it had a low level of academic content. I got more structure out of that local history element, where the lecturers were inspiring.

“As a result, I went into the sector with the view that museums should be about a sense of place with a unique identity. All the work I’ve done since then has that strand going through it.”

Building a knowledge base

Maggie Appleton, the chief executive of the RAF Museum and the president of the Museums Association, completed the heritage management MA at the Ironbridge Institute at the University of Birmingham in 1990-91, after her history degree at the University of Liverpool.

“I didn’t intend to work in the heritage sector, but I did voluntary work in a museum for fun and realised it was what I wanted to do,” says Appleton, who remembers that her four course modules (interpretation, finance, marketing and management) provided a comprehensive overview of running a heritage attraction.

“When I became an assistant curator at Stevenage Museum in the early 1990s, all that information became immediately useful because in a small museum you’re relying on your knowledge all the time,” Appleton says. “All the learning about museums being values-based organisations with ethics that underpin their work remains important.

“Topics such as ethics, diversity and museums’ role in social action have come to the fore recently but it doesn’t feel like a shift – it’s about valuing what museums are for.”

Links and downloads

Courses guide and listings 2018 (pdf)