The University of East Anglia has an established museum studies programme

The right course

Julie Nightingale, 07.03.2019
Universities offer a wide range of subjects and modes of learning, so ensure you pick one that fits your needs and interests, says Julie Nightingale
A postgraduate qualification is one of many ways to get a foot into the job market. Specialist knowledge of a subject or field of expertise, combined with key practical skills, can set you apart in a competitive sector and make you eminently employable, or equip you to take the next step in the career ladder.

Alternatively, a postgraduate museum studies course – even if you already have a higher qualification – can be the springboard into a university research career or similar post with a museum, gallery or professional body.

Even if your interest in further study has been sparked purely by a love of learning, the good news is that universities and higher education institutions are keen to have you. The postgraduate market has always been competitive, but there is now a huge difference in who is seeking who. In the past, it was students who were competing for places but now it is the universities that are rivals as the number of options for students expands.

The introduction of postgraduate loans four years ago has further intensified the competition. It has opened up the possibility of master’s level study to more people, but also led to universities being more creative with the course content and the modes of learning they offer, including full-time, part-time, blended learning, online and modular.

Market forces are not the only driver of change. The museum sector is evolving at a rapid pace and placing greater emphasis on social change and diversity in collections and workforce.

These developments, along with the new skills, knowledge and perspectives they require, are reflected in study programmes, leading to more partnership working and increased hands-on museum experience being incorporated into courses.

“It’s an exciting time to be committing to a postgraduate programme in museum studies, given the visibility of museum issues in popular culture and the political environment,” says Alice Stevenson, an associate professor of museum studies at University College London.

“Students should be looking for programmes that are responsive to the critical movements in the sector to decolonise, diversify and recognise historical biases. They should seek courses that are developing ways of embedding these concerns into day-to-day practice.

“They should also look for courses that have partnerships across the sector, which provide different insights from within organisations, and offer students hands-on experience of addressing key issues and developing a range of skills.”

What’s on offer?

Well-established programmes include the MA in cultural heritage and museum studies at the University of East Anglia; Kingston University’s museum and gallery studies MA; University of Aberdeen’s MLitt in museum studies; University of Manchester’s MA in art gallery and museum studies; and University of Leeds’s master’s in art gallery and museum studies.

Newcastle University has offered an MA in museum studies for 25 years and also runs the MPrac in museum practice, combining the MA programme with a placement in the second year – a model that is being copied by others.

Specialisms available include University of Glasgow’s MSc in museum education, which covers topics such as curriculum development, access and inclusion, and modern educational thought. It is available as a campus-based or online programme.

Leeds offers an MA in curating science, while the PGCert in museums and galleries entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths, University of London, focuses on the business side of the museum world and covers subjects such as marketing, audience development, commerce and merchandising.

Depending on your motivation for postgraduate study, you will be choosing between a course that is taught and involves attending lectures, seminars and placements, or one that is research-based, where the focus is on working independently with tutor supervision.

Make sure you are clear about the difference and the time commitments that each programme involves.

Open days

Most universities have two or three open days a year for postgraduate entrants to see their facilities, meet staff and current students and ask the questions that the brochures and websites don’t always answer, such as:

  • What are the contact hours with teaching staff?
  • Is there a work placement and is it compulsory if you are already working in the sector?
  • Who arranges work placements – the student or the department? If the latter, where are they offered?
  • How many students are on the course?
  • How does the part-time option work – which modules do you study when?
  • Who teaches the course and what is their recent experience of the sector?
  • Who does the course invite to give guest lectures?
  • What bursaries, scholarships and other discounts are available on course fees?
Tamsin Russell, the professional development officer at the Museums Association, recommends questioning staff on details of teaching methods, but also on data such as the course’s employability rates post-graduation and the number of students who drop out.

It is also useful to find out where alumni have ended up working as it gives an insight into the roles you could pursue.

Finally, think about where you want to study. Your local university may be convenient, but only if the course dovetails with your interests. If not, look further afield. A master’s is a commitment for a year or more, so pursue your passion.

Julie Nightingale is a freelance journalist