Friday, January 14, 2011

The rise of Museum Studies: Are the rest of us esoteric dinosaurs?

I spent the past several days putting together an academic track of plenary sessions, roundtable discussions, receptions, and student programs for the Ohio Museums Association's annual conference being held this year at Walsh University. In my free time, I have been cranking out recommendation letters for a multitude of Museum Studies graduate programs to which my last semester's students are applying. Add to that, this week Walsh posted a brand new position, Director of the Museum Studies Program. All of this museum studies activity started me thinking about my own education, career path, and professional position as a "museum specialist." I don't personally have a degree in Museum Studies. Am I still the specialist I think I am, or fast becoming a museum dinosaur?

Teaching in the Museum Studies program at Walsh, I am convinced that my students today are better prepared for the special challenges presented by museum work than I ever was at their age. Still, I cannot help but wonder where all of the wonderful, esoteric majors have gone? As an undergraduate student I took courses in anthropology, art history, history, classic civilization, geology, and more.  Let's face it, I never met a humanities class I didn't like, and typically these classes were not electives, but required coursework in one of the two majors I assumed would prepare me well for a career in museums. During the fall semester of my junior year, I was interning at the Art Museum, volunteering at the Museum of Archaeology, and taking classes in the Natural History Museum. I graduated a year and a half later, and within a week began my first job on staff at a museum. Granted, it was a traveling art museum on a train, and I was serving as something resembling an art history carnie, but still I managed to ply my diverse liberal arts education and brief museum experience into a real career, stunning both of my parents along the way.

After a couple of months touring on the Artrain, I decided I needed to head to grad school, so I might eventually get a stationary museum job somewhere. I looked at two museum studies programs, there were not many to choose from back then, but decided upon an advanced degree program in anthropology. Believe it or not, I considered anthropology a more practical choice than museum studies, which seemed too narrow and confining for broader professional applications. I was not interested in a PhD in anthropology, which would lead to a career in academia and research. I wanted a masters degree as a doorway to a role in museum leadership. Anthropology seemed a sensible and interesting choice with wide-ranging applications, and in my case, it was.

How times have changed! Today, there are programs in museum studies at both my undergraduate and graduate schools. Neither existed when I attended in the nineties. In my own course in museum studies, I now teach skills and concepts to undergrads that took me years of on-the-job training to acquire. Knowing they will also need advanced degrees to land a decent museum job, these same students are going on to graduate programs in museum studies, and will soon have more textbook knowledge of museology than I.

The museum world seems to be brimming with these new specialists in museum studies, not to mention nonprofit management and arts administration. So, where does that leave the rest of us? What becomes of the anthropology, history, and classic civ majors, who landed museum jobs ten to fifteen years ago, before the new wave? Certainly, there is a wisdom that only experience can bring, but for those of us grandfathered under the pre-museum studies era exemption, can we expect to be outpaced by our younger museum colleagues in the know? Are we the new dinosaurs in our own museums?

These are all questions we hope to dig into at the upcoming OMA conference, and I invite you to attend and weigh in on the role that academic programs in museum studies may play in changing the face of museum administration. In the meantime, please share your thoughts about how you think museum scholarship and the education of museum specialists is, or isn't, changing our profession. I look forward to reading your comments.


  1. Thank you for bringing attention to this. I belong to the "dinosaur"-era, having graduated in 1995. :-) I feel quite up to date but realize there is a new generation actually getting all of this new knowledge within their degree, already at university. The very same knowledge I have had to aquire bit by bit during my years at work. Will there be a greater need for further training for us? What should it look like? I look forward to more blogposts on this subject from you.

  2. This is a very interesting post. I graduated with a degree in Historical Administration in 2003 and have been very happy (and, let's face it, very lucky) with my career. As my career progresses, I keep wishing I had more specialty training!

    When it comes to museums, I'm a generalist. And while this is a great quality for an entry-level employee to have, as I move up the ranks in the profession I want to be able to specialize a bit.

    With museum studies degrees continuing to be increasingly important in the job search, I believe that there is definitely a place for non-museum studies grads who have ample museum experience.

    In some ways, this is kind of a "the grass is always greener" situation. Perhaps in the future, more programs will have dual-degree options?

    Personally, I wish I could go back to school and get a second BA, in Art History.

  3. As someone who graduated with a Masters in Museum and Field Studies in 2008, I'm a newer species (perhaps one of the birds that dinosaurs evolved into?). I was fortunate to go through a program that allowed me to double in both Museology and Zoology, but I chose the path of museum studies rather than straight biology because of what I wanted to do. I didn't want to be only behind the scenes, caring for collections; I wanted to be the link between content and visitors and develop experiences that would matter. And for me, that meant being trained in much more than just my content area.

    I also chose to complete a masters because that degree is a ticket. Almost every museum job posting cites a degree in museum studies as the preference for candidate experience, so I'd rather have than not. And since I truly believe that Museology is its own field, separate from the content areas found within museums, why not study it professionally?


  4. I stunned my parents when I got a job as well! (Jobs for an Egyptology M.A. are not easy to come by, but I found a good fit at the Getty Villa, where my knowledge of the ancient world is a strong asset.) I don't think we "dinosaurs" are extinct just yet. I think whether or not a museum hires someone with a museum studies degree depends on the museum doing the hiring. In some cases a specific traditional area of study will be more desirable, and in others, museum studies.

  5. Thanks for all of the great comments! I received my copy of AAM's "Museum" magazine today, and after noting that it felt a little slimmer than usual, I counted 6 advertisements for museum studies, or arts administration programs among the mag's 65 pages. Even after filling out what seemed like an endless progression of online grad school recommendation forms for my museum studies students, all 6 of these programs were new to me. Knowing AAM's audience of "Museum" readers, it looks like these graduate programs are well aware of the museum studies vs. O.J.T. professional conundrum and are making a play for those dinosaurs without a degree.


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