Museums and… Museum Studies Degrees

It’s been a funny week in museums. First of all Museum professionals are reportedly murdering each other over the new definition of museums and then this tweet about crediting museum curators in the press kicked off a days worth of slightly warm exchanges about who deserves credit for exhibitions. It would seem that the museum sector is struggling a bit with fundamental definitions so what better time to dust off a 2013 blogpost I wrote whilst at UCL on Will a museum studies degree help you get a job in a museum? Originally posted here all images (c) UCL.

This post is a bit inside baseball, but then so is the metaphor inside baseball.

We get asked the above question at the Grant Museum frequently by aspiring museum professionals and volunteers and it’s a question that isn’t simply answered. I can’t say that my view on whether it helps or not is the definitive view but as an employer (sadly not as often as we’d like to be) here’s my personal thoughts on whether or not it helps.

First, I’d advise looking at the job specification and application form. If ‘Must have a Museum Studies degree’ is an essential criterion then, yes absolutely, you will need a museum studies degree to get shortlisted for the job. At the Grant Museum we try to steer away from this absolute requirement so as to encourage individuals with many years of working in museums and in other sectors to apply but you do still see it on job adverts.

If the possession of a museum studies degree (or equivalent) is desirable or not specifically asked for here’s what I look for on a job application.

There are a number of Museum Studies courses out there. UCL has a good one (full disclosure- which I teach on) [2019 update sadly no more but the group have visited Oxford University Museum of Natural History on field trips] and they are definitely an interesting thing to study (full disclosure- I studied Museum Studies at UCL). There are a couple of instances in which I’d strongly recommend doing one; if you’re in two minds about whether museums are for you or not and if you ended up in a particular museum via a circuitous route and would like to develop your career in museums. The first instance may sound like an expensive way to test the waters for a life in museums but working in a museum isn’t just swanning around appearing erudite to the masses and occasionally dusting specimens. A good museum studies course will expose you to all the aspects of museums that you need to be familiar with/put up with/have to learn if you want to get employed. The latter instance is something I see a lot less of these days. Before the professionalization of a career in museums there were many ways to get into working in a museum without a background in working in museums. Each museum works differently and it’s very easy to become ‘institutionalised’ without being exposed to the bigger picture. A museum studies course is a great way to really understand what museums are, how they came about and importantly, how museums work together locally, nationally and internationally in the museum sector. I really value this sense of perspective and aspiration to change practice beyond the walls of one institution and it’s key to understanding the fundamentals of why museums do the things they do rather than why the museum I work at does the things it does. This distinction is subtle but very important (I think).

Another thing that is perhaps more important than undertaking a degree in museum studies is what else you did at the same time. I’m not saying it’s easy to get a museum studies degree but studying a museum studies degree to develop your specific area of interest is a wonderful opportunity and is what will set you apart from your classmates. Volunteer or get a work placement in a number of museums whilst you study. If you’re interested in natural history museums then undertake all your assignments in natural history museums. Perhaps most importantly, go and see as many museums and exhibitions as possible (the free ones at least). Studying in London was particularly exciting to me as there are so many great museums on your doorstep and the volunteer and work placement opportunities provided by my course shaped my future career and work ethos. If you have studied a museum studies degree then it’s this activity that I like to see on an application above and beyond getting a degree awarded.

This sounds hugely unfair. And it is unfair. Museum jobs are hotly contested and you have to be so many things; an excellent manager, a public engager, a subject specialist, an advocate, a networker, a conservator, a public speaker, a writer, a porter, a photographer, a researcher, a historian, a technician, a designer, an interpreter.. the list goes on and you probably have to be in the right place at the right time to secure that sought after job. Most of these you need just to get a foot in the door on a short contract or a volunteer position. You might also wish to consider finding yourself a wealthy partner too because the pay pales when compared to equally qualified professionals in many other fields and the career ladder doesn’t have many rungs at all. Sadly this is the reality of the sector but the pay off is that the job is incredibly rewarding.

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Museum professionals considering early retirement

Is a museum studies degree more important than years worth of experience in the sector? Absolutely not. If you have worked in a range of museums either as paid staff or as a volunteer and understand the bigger picture and can answer all the whats/whys/wheres/hows of museums then that’s more than enough experience. There’s quite a gap between museum history and theory and practice and in my experience the best candidates understand what the theoretical gold standard is (in conservation, management structures, engagement practice) and why most museums ignore a lot of these standards because they are incompatible with day to day practice. In addition, there are many careers outside of museums that work in a similar way and provide people with identical skill sets plus there’s the advantage of being willing to think outside of the box or bring knowledge and skills that are in crucial shortage within museums (e.g. advocacy, political lobbying, fund raising, marketing, IT/digital, commercial activity and development).

Once again this is just my perspective on whether a museum studies degree is needed or not to get a job in museums, other employers may well have different perspectives (feel free to drop a comment if you have any other advice) but hopefully this article will give some guidance for people toying with undertaking one.

2019 Post-post analysis. The debate still rages but I still largely stand by what I said here and the silly season kerfuffles over defining museums and defining different kinds of exhibitions are literally week 1 discussion topics in a Museum Studies degree programme worth its salt. I’m less comfortable with the idea of the pay off being worth the sacrifice, for god’s sake join your union, and yes, it’s still a ridiculously high barrier to entry with and without a museum studies degree this depressingly hasn’t changed fast enough.

Following on from the original blog post, friend and colleague, also no longer at UCL, Jack Ashby wrote an alternative perspective on the usefulness of a museum studies degree in getting a job which is worth a read. And yes, we disagree and that’s fine. Colleague Rachel Jennings took it a step further and researched how often museum studies degrees were realistically asked for and by whom Degrees of usefulness: How important are museum studies qualifications in recruitment to the museum sector? Of course, getting a degree is one thing, applying for jobs and getting an interview is another and I’m told this blog post has been useful advice for many