Got an MA in Museum Studies? Feel like a zombie?

Okay, I know it's not Friday yet, but I saw this on Lynn's blog and I just had to post a link. There is - in Lynn's words - a 'really provocative' post about Museum Studies courses and their graduates on Museum 2:0, which - I suspect - could engender a lot of debate!

The crux of the argument isn't new, but whenever I read or hear anyone casting doubt on the value or usefulness of museum studies qualifications I kind of feel like I've been punched in the stomach! Certainly, I wasn't v successful finding employment related to my MA in the four years between graduating and starting my PhD, but I would like to think that that had more to do with my unwillingness to relocate (though to be honest, I didn't - at that time - have a lot of choice in the matter) than anything else.

I have to admit, however, that during my job search I did on occasion run into a little bit of prejudice in some quarters of the museum profession (lets hope a dying breed - museum studies detractors I mean, not the museum profession per se!) against museum studies programmes, and museum studies graduates.

Would be interesting to hear what everyone else thinks about this issue.


Tom P said…
I certainly know a lot of MS graduates who'd say that it was no substitute (or basis) for practical experience.

However, once I'd volunteered in three different museums, and then worked professionally in three more 'heritage environments' I began to feel that no two museums jobs are ever the mirror images of one another.

Therefore, the general grounding and overview that the intellectual engagement of an MA offers is an important part of being self-critical and reflexive enough to become a truly adaptable practitioner from one role (and organisation) to another.

Those are my thoughts, anyhow...
Ceri said…
Based on my experience, I had trouble getting a job in a museum before I got an MA in Art and Heritage Management and trouble getting a job after. That was even with volunteer experience - and I did make enough contacts to apply for a job related to that but did not get it because I did not have enough real experience of project management. I do not blame my MA for this state of affairs - you only have to read back issues of Museums Journal to appreciate that even before the current growth in all things Museum Studies there were the same arguments about lack of jobs and low wages. In the end I was able to get a job in museums in a roundabout way, through the University, and that was the best thing that ever happened to me. However it took lots of hard slog. But I was prepared for it - I always thought wanting to work in museums was more about 'love' (cheesy I know) than the pursuit of a wage or material comfort. I also did not expect my MA to get me a job. I thought it would help but at the end of the day, I also thought I had to augment that experience with other interests. So I did as much varied voluntary work as I could and that paid off because even for my current job I felt that it was my volunteer work which helped secure it. This was aided by the fact that I did not actually enjoy my MA and felt it was a mistake. So I looked for more creative opportunities elsewhere. I suppose I am lucky in the fact that I enjoy cramming lots of things into my life but even so I found it hard going (with a part time job as well) and I did not do as well in my MA as I hoped. Still I passed which was the important thing.

Anyway enough about me. I read the article and whilst I understand the concerns expressed, I do not completely agree. As Amy says, some museum staff actively look down on graduates so how is having such a qualification going to be made compulsory? At the end of the day you have to be right for the job (as well as the job being right for you) and however much we like to think that there is a standard way of choosing the right person, a lot of it is down to personality. I do not think you can expect your MA to automatically guarantee a job, no more than being born to the upper class should entitle someone to a powerful position in society. It is a means towards a job but it should not prevent someone from thinking about themselves as a rounded person and what they have to offer to the museum world as much as what the museum world has to offer them.
Amy said…
I can kind of empathise with the 'commenters' on the Museum 2.0 blog who have talked about the idealism of museum studies graduates and how the reality of museum work doesn't always live up to expectations. But, a course that infuses you with a passion for museums and their work, and gives you a sense of being able to play an active role in the presentation and dissemination of history and art and culture, is got to be a positive thing. I have to confess I went into the MA believing that it would lead to employment. Largely because I had no sense of the realities of the museum profession. My graduation in 2001 coincided with an enormous increase in the number of museum studies programmes and thus graduates which flooded the market and frankly made the profession very competitive. When I started the MA in 1998 (by DL) job adverts asked for one year's experience working in the field. A postgraduate qualification was desirable but not essential. By the time I finished, many jobs required three year's (often paid) experience and a museum studies qualification was a must. Not only that, several major employers in the sector (not mentioning any names *cough* the Victoria & Albert Museum - had started their own training programmes for entry level positions, for which I was then over-qualified!! It did seem at times like finding work in museums was all about who you knew, and what not you knew. Nepotism is rife, I fear. And I often felt that unless you have a wealthy family or partner it was near impossible to support yourself in an entry level position. This has to be a barrier for many trying to access the profession. Because I had to pay the bills while I was looking for museum work I took a series of admin and advice work positions. At, at least, two interviews, this was commented upon by the interviewers who suggested that I wasn't sufficiently committed to working in the sector. Not the worse, most disheartening experience I had at an interview - that was being asked if I was planning on doing anything 'silly' like get myself pregnant - but certainly discouraging.

But certainly the biggest problem I came across, initially at least, were poor salaries and short-term contracts. Several of the jobs I went for, I couldn't have taken even if I'd been successful at interview, because I wouldn't have been able to afford to relocate. I was also at a disadvantage because I had minimal voluntary/work experience. That's definitely the key to finding work in the field. My big fear is that I will be just as unemployable when I complete my PhD.

After all this negativity though I do have to say that I have never for a single moment regretted doing the MA. It was absolutely the best decision I have ever taken. I strongly believe in fate. If I hadn't seen that small advert in the Guardian's Creative jobs listing, for the new DL programme in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester in the summer of 1998, I certainly wouldn't be here now.
Amy said…
I'm sorry - that was a very moany comment I left there. I wouldn't want to put anyone off doing museum studies, but I think it's important that people go into it with their eyes open. There are barriers to getting that first step on the ladder, but a lot of work has been done in recent years to improve access, for example increasing wages for entry level positions, giving more opportunities to people from non-traditional backgrounds. You have to be flexible though, in a way I probably wasn't, i.e. you have to be prepared to move where the work is. It certainly won't come to you, especially if you live in a rural area! But at the same time - and I guess I run the risk of making myself a tad unpopular here - I fear that there are just too many graduates out there now, for too few genuinely 'desirable' positions. And, in particular, very little for those looking for curatorial work, as opposed to education positions, for example. But that still shouldn't make anyone doubt the validity or worth of museum studies as an academic subject. We just have to be realistic and understand that a qualification in Museum Studies doesn't by right make you a museums professional.

Who'd have thought - looking from the outside in - that the world of museum work would be so flipping cut and thrust?!!
Amy said…
Does this mean I'm actually agreeing with the Museum 2.0 post now? Gawd - I'm so easily led! ;)
Nina Simon said…
Dear folks,

I'm the provocative person behind the Museum 2.0 post. Amy, I think that the evolution you detailed seeing with regard to museums' expectations in terms of experience and credentials is very real and sadly revealing. I'm not sure whether employers remember how they themselves got into the museum field--presumably without being asked after five years of school, internships etc about their level of commitment.

I think it's great that there are more people than ever out there who have a solid grounding in museum studies. But as you comment, that doesn't make it easier to find a job. So from a young person perspective, I would advise other young people to go outside museum studies for a degree, or pursue job experience that distinguishes them as a candidate in another way. I know that in my job search, the fact that I worked as an engineer for NASA was the most talked-about part of my resume--and I almost left it off as non-relevant experience! I'm disturbed when I talk to friends of mine in museum grad programs and look at the portfolios they are required to create--all the portfolios look the same. Their programs are setting them up to appear typical, rather than unique, in job interview settings.

And then I do also question when is the right time for theory in a museum person's career. Education can help jumpstart your interest in something, but I personally feel that I always get more out of courses I take based on prior experience/interest than otherwise. Perhaps if there was a culture of museum people going back to school after ten years in the field, we'd have more fresh ideas and less nepotism. Of course, once you have kids etc., leaving a paying job that hundreds of 23-year-olds want to do becomes daunting...

I have a dream to start a small experimental museum which can serve as an education/innovation center for museum professionals and interested other individuals, where people can come for 3-week to 1-year stints to mount experimental exhibit, try risky programming, and basically dabble in wildness of a kind not acceptable in most museums. I'd like to see more opportunities for education to be a springboard for more innovation in the field, rather than a locked door so many young grads slam into.
Amy said…
Thanks for your input Nina. I guess the problem is that us museum studies people are all too aware of the problems associated with finding work, but at the same time, feel quite defensive it. I don't know what the demographics of museum studies students at Leicester are, but I'm guessing most do have at least some experience of working in museums, even if it is just on a voluntary basis. It's clear to me that I was quite unusual in fact, when I began the MA by distance-learning, that I didn't, unlike the vast majority of my peers. Realistically, I let myself down in that respect, though voluntary work was pretty hard to come by in my part of the world anyway. At the same though I'm certain there has been more than a bit of a backlash against MS graduates. Even in this months Museums Journal there's a small news item about the need to open up the jobs market to people without museum studies qualifications, the argument being that the costs involved restrict many from postgraduate study. Which I'm sure is true. But I can't help thinking that lurking at the back of those sentiments somewhere is a bit of inverted snobbery. I supposed if I were a middle aged, jaded museums professional, I'd feel a bit threatened by a young, enthusiastic graduate with the means and wherewith all to upset the status quo. I mean, I think most of us who have completed a Museum Studies masters degree come out the other end thinking we can change the world! ;) We know how some sectors of the profession have reacted to calls on museums to expand access to their collections and to engage in social inclusion. Might not the growing 'professionalisation' that postgrad qualifications represent be met with the same suspicion and (in some quarters) contempt?

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