In the third year of my undergrad degree, everyone in my year group seemed to be struck with the same realisation – our student days were coming to an end and it was probably a good idea to start thinking about what we were actually going to do with our lives. I suppose I had a head-start – I already knew that I wanted to work in museums, and, on top of that, knew that taking an MA in Museum Studies (or a similar course) was one of the ways in. My main dilemma was – did I really want to study Museum Studies (at that point I was split between carrying on with History and moving on to a more heritage based course), and, if so, which course at which University should I take. As you have probably guessed from the title of this post, I chose the MA in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester.
Now, I can’t say whether this degree is the best course to take, or even whether completing a postgraduate degree is the best way into the museum sector. I have zero experience of these other degrees and pathways, and, to be perfectly honest, there probably isn’t a single ‘best’ way. What I can say is that completing the MA at Leicester prepared me for the museum world by introducing me to the main areas of museum work, and encouraging me to think like a museum professional rather than a history student. It gave me access to the knowledge and experience that the lecturers and academics at the School of Museum Studies had developed through working within (or in collaboration with) different museums. But, beyond this, it provided me with links to a broader network of museum professionals, and, as a result, opportunities to gain practical experience.
The MA in Museum Studies: What Do You Learn?
There are a number of different museum and heritage related courses on offer at the Uni of Leicester, which will appeal to different people with different interests – for example, if you are particularly interested in working in institutions focussed on fine or contemporary art, Art Museum and Gallery Studies would probably be ideal. I completed what is probably the most well known and perhaps generic masters, Museum Studies, which essentially gives you an overview of the key areas of museum work. This can act as a great introduction if you, like me at the time, haven’t got much experience in this sector. So, to give you a quick overview, here are the core modules for the full-time MA:
- Museums, Societies and Cultural Change – This module explores how the way that we conceptualise of museums and their role in society has changed, considering the question of what the museum is and what it should be. Yes, this is very broad and very theoretical, but it did act as an introduction to the various issues and debates that museums and their professionals have been faced with over the past couple of decades. Should museums be used as a vehicle for social and cultural change? Should the museum be ‘objective’ or actively engage in activism? Who should museums be representative of, and how can they become more representative? Should objects that have been unjustly taken from originating communities be repatriated, or should they remain in the museum collection where they are ‘safe’? So, if you strip this module down to its core, the essential question it poses is…who and what is the museum for? While this may seem a little airy-fairy, this question has a very tangible impact on the way museums conduct themselves in real life situations, and influences that museum professionals are often faced with. Arguably, encouraging students to consider different approaches to these questions prepares them for problems that may lie ahead in their future careers.
- Strategic Resource Development – This is one of the more practical modules. It examines a variety of different areas of museum practice, including the creation of the museum’s mission and strategic priorities, the management of people, techniques for collections management and care, and also disaster planning. This was a useful introduction to the key areas of museum practice, providing, for example, a better understanding of the impact that different conditions (such as relative humidity) can have on different types of collections, and how they can be monitored and controlled. At the time, I remember feeling that the breadth of this module meant that we weren’t able to explore these subjects with the level of depth that I was hoping for. However, since then, I have realised that this gave me a framework to build upon through experience, which is the best way of developing an in depth understanding of these areas of museum practice.
- Communication, Media and Museums – Again this module is a practical one, looking at the ways that museums make themselves and their collections accessable. This module is therefore focussed on looking at how museums can use the resources available to them engage their audiences, whether by producing interpretation for objects, developing galleries and exhibitions or designing educational events or activities. Importantly, a large part of this module is practical, encouraging students to apply these concepts to their own work. A large part of your time taken up by a design project where you are expected to work as part of a team to create a small display for an object on loan from a museum’s collection (my team was given a tabua, which is the tooth of a sperm whale transformed into an object of great cultural significance in Fiji – see below). Although this is on a small scale, it does give you the chance to undertake some of the processes involved in developing museum displays. These include: object research, selecting (and engaging audiences with) different stories, designing graphics, generally managing the project and the ever decreasing budget (which starts off at £100 from memory), and, most importantly, working effectively as part of a team full of different creative but conflicting ideas.
- 15,000 Word Dissertation – As you have probably noticed, the entire course is quite wide-ranging, and, as a result, you don’t necessarily study a specific subject in any real depth unless you are completing an assignment, or have a particular interest. The dissertation rectifies this as it gives you the chance to develop expertise in a specific area of your choice, using your own research to construct your own arguments. My dissertation explored the way that the social model of disability is affecting the way collections are being developed to better represent disability and the disabled ‘community’, focussing on collaborative projects in two very different museums. Not only did this allow me to explore the way that the agendas of both the museums and their partnersare affected the way these collections were curated, but it also opened my eyes to the complexities involved in defining, let alone representing, this ‘community’. I had the chance to unpick the difficulties that the museums encountered, whether they were related to the question of the types of objects that should be collected, or who should make these decisions. It also enabled me to consider way the museums maneuveured around the various obstacles, and whether I would do anything differently. All in all, I felt this was a worthwhile excercise.
- A Six Week Work Placement – Personally, I found that the work placement was the most useful part of the course, as it gave me the chance to experience what it is actually like to work in a museum. The School has created the Leicester University Museums Network (LUMEN), which consists of over 200 museums who offer placements for MA (and MSc) students. I chose to complete my placement at Birmingham Museums Trust (see here for a couple of more details), which allowed me to develop a much better understanding of the workings of a busy exhibitions department, and of museums more generally. It also gave me the chance to write interpretation to go on display (both object labels and guidebook entries), assist with the conceptualisation of a new gallery, help with collections care (e.g. rolling textiles), draw plans for new galleries, assist with the decant of a permanent gallery, and, to a small extent, catalogue objects. This gives you something concrete to talk about in your applications and interviews. In fact, it was talking about the decant of the permanent gallery that gave me a decent shot at my first job at the Pitt Rivers. It had given the experience of object handling and packing, and more generally of how to keep track of large quantities of objects that I needed. It also gave me a recent reference from someone who worked in museums. All in all, the placement was the most immediately useful part of the degree.
Connecting to Networks of Museum Professionals
I have rambled on for quite a long time now…and I’m afraid it isn’t over yet.* I promise this will be just a short(ish) point. The additional perk of taking part in any vocational degree or training course is that you get to know other people who share many of your goals – this can only be a good thing. Networking seems to be essential in any career, and museum work is no exception. This course not only gives you access to the LUMEN network, providing a variety of different placements, but it also introduces you to a wealth of individuals, students and professors alike, who will go on to start (or have already established) careers in different museums or in the academic field of Museum Studies. Being part of this network could be really useful, whether creating opportunities for collaboration or simply keeping you in the loop about what is going on in the museum world. Just something to bear in mind.
Unlocking But Not Opening The Doors
Here is the catch. Whilst my MA gave me a great deal and would help me to eventually find a job, it was not enough by itself. On the one hand, it meant that the jobs that required the masters degree as part of the essential criteria were (theoretically) open to me. But on the other, I didn’t have the experience to set myself apart from the other candidates. To be seriously considered, I needed both the degree and the experience.
Please don’t get me wrong – the MA definitely gives you a boost. In terms of experience, the workplacement element of the course really helped. But this was just a start, and, as a relatively inexperienced graduate, I needed to continue finding new ways of developing professionally, either through volunteer roles or internships.
Getting an MA is just one of the possible steps that you can take to get yourself a job in the museum sector, and it is by no means the only path. And to be completely honest, some jobs or areas of museum work don’t even ask for this kind of qualification. My advice would be to research the types of jobs that you’d be interested in, examining the knowledge and experience you’d need to develop to get a look in, and then decide whether the MA would actually be useful to you.
*At some stage I will learn to keep blog posts short…sorry!