University of Leicester School of Museum Studies – 50 years at the forefront of practical academic training

As the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies celebrates its 50th anniversary we talk to Dr Suzanne MacLeod, Director and Head of School, about the pioneering work it undertakes in research, distance learning, online courses, quality training and equality

What makes the School of Museums Studies at the University of Leicester and its courses unique from others in the UK and internationally?

The School is unique in the sense that it is the only dedicated School of Museum Studies in the UK. Internationally, it provides a rare concentration of professionals and academics dedicated to teaching and researching museums and galleries – as a result, hundreds of people pass through the School every year as students, as visiting researchers or as guest speakers and teachers. The School has a dynamic research culture, driven in large part by its strong body of PhD researchers and it has around 300 students across it Master’s programmes at any one time – these students might study on campus or at a distance. Our students come from all over the world and they are an amazing resource – they bring diverse experiences to the School and many of them are established professionals. Our courses are unique in terms of their emphasis on developing creative and reflective practitioners – we teach practical museum skills and functions, but always in relation to leading-edge research and with an emphasis on supporting our graduates to go out into the profession – wherever in the world that might be – and make a difference. Many professionals use the School as a place to reflect on their work.

The School has a very strong set of values and is driven by a commitment to equality and diversity. 2016 is our 50th Anniversary year and we will be placing a particular emphasis on equality issues across our range of activities – it seems like a great opportunity to progress our work in this area.

Who takes the courses at the school and what are the main skills they will learn to equip them for becoming a museum professional?

The key to understanding our School is to recognise its international outlook. At any one time our students might come from 20-30 different countries. They will vary in the levels of prior experience – so some are pre-entry and want to make a career in the cultural sector, where as others will have well developed careers and may be very senior within their organisations but want to upskill or undertake research in order to reflect on an aspect of their practice.

In terms of main skills, these do vary across our programmes. On our MA in Art Museum and Gallery Studies we teach core museum skills and knowledge across the whole range of museum activities. Students can also specialise in specific areas such as education or interpretation. The Leicester programmes each have a core curriculum that is shaped first and foremost by the needs of the sector – key skills and knowledge. That said, research in the School is also active in the development of the sector and so we are constantly striving to reflect that in our programmes. The majority of our staff have vast experience in museums and galleries and so are well-placed to provide this very ambitious, broad-based education.

The inspirational and creative training that our sector needs won’t be met by solely providing training in specific museum functions (though this is vital). Rather, we need innovators and creative practitioners - this is what we seek to enable at Leicester

Dr Suzanne MacLeod - Director and Head of School

What have been some of the successes and milestones at the school over the past 50 years, or at least since you began working there in 1997?

When I started in 1997, the School was just embarking on a new project to develop distance learning – a programme in Museum Studies which could be accessed from home, wherever that might be, and progressed alongside a full time job. At that time, distance learning was all about access and opening up access to the opportunities in the School.

In 2016 we are launching our new flexible learning offer which will build on the distance learning developments and offer yet more flexibility and opportunity to take smaller chunks of learning and add to them over time. In this sense, the ambitions of the School haven’t changed – we still aim to listen to the needs of colleagues in the cultural sector and respond to the challenges that museum professionals face in terms of accessing training. Equally however, we want to innovate and make a worthwhile contribution. We have begun to test out some of these new ways of working with our MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] – a free online course titled  ‘Behind the Scenes at the 21st Museum’. It is co-produced by University of Leicester and National Museums Liverpool. It ran for the first time in 2014 with 11,342 people registered for the course.

Another key milestone since 1997 relates to research. In the late ‘90s, the School was still quite small (although was expanded then as it is now by the large number of visiting experts the School draws into its teaching) and although the team were researching, the research was small scale and focused in a few core areas. Research in the School today is dynamic, collaborative and recognised across academia as well as in the sector as doing something very fundamental. This was recognised in 2008 and 2014 when the School excelled in the UK research excellence framework and really put museum studies research on the map. Today, the cultural sector has something very unique and lacking in many other sectors – an active research culture which is embedded in museum practice and which offers an important route to developing novel and creative solutions to so many challenges. The fact that our students can also be immersed in this culture during their studies, means that they too emerge as creative and reflective practitioners.

What are the fundamental changes in museum studies in the digital age and how has this affected what students are taught at Leicester?

In terms of teaching, digital has been a key component of our programmes for many years. We employed two experts in digital relatively early on and they are both active in researching and theorising digital in museums. Digital is embedded across our programmes – much the same way that digital is increasingly embedded across museums. That said some of our students specialise in this area. For example, every year we offer opportunities for students to ‘become expert’ in specific areas, one of which is digital.

In terms of our programmes, digital offers up endless opportunities to develop media rich teaching – both on campus and for those students who want more flexibility. Our MOOC was an experiment for the School. We wanted to learn more about digital and more about how learners are using digital to embed their learning in their work and home lives. The MOOC is running for the second time at the moment – this time with a smaller cohort of 4,500 learners! – and we will be using a lot of the approaches and opportunities developed through the MOOC in the relaunch of our flexible learning offer in 2016.

What are the benefits of potential museum professionals completing an academic course as opposed to volunteering or working as an intern?

I think the point is that there isn’t a better or a worse way to get into museum work. I completed a taught MA in Art Museum and Gallery Studies and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way. Many of our students relish their time at Leicester as vital time to step out of work, develop new skills and have an opportunity to think broadly about their areas of interest. That said, the sector needs variety – the Leicester team have always seen the School as part of a complex cultural landscape. Funding is clearly an issue that comes up here and in the UK especially at the moment, there is so little funding around for training. The School also takes this seriously and offers a number of bursaries and scholarships each year. All of these initiatives are important.

How important is it for the school to look at new ways of learning and to reach out globally to encourage people to understand modern day museums more?

It is certainly important to the School that we look for new ways of learning. We tend to do all of this thinking in partnership with colleagues in the sector. Over the years we have been lucky enough to work collaboratively with colleagues all over the world, in the UK, Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong as well as in the United States and a whole range of other countries. We strive to generate an understanding of museums and find that we are learning just as much as we are providing. For example, the School ran a conference on museum design in Hong Kong last November and all of the delegates – we came from 16 different countries! – were struck by the need to be aware of our shared interests but also our cultural differences. There were some wonderful approaches to museum design emerging from China which draw upon Chinese heritage and are really about seeking a model of the modern museum that is appropriate to China and meaningful there.

When was the partnership with National Museums Liverpool established, and what are the benefits of this relationship for both parties?

We have a number of museums, galleries and companies that we work with regularly. The partnership with NML is long-standing – we have worked with them on a number of projects and the MOOC was just the latest. In October 2016 we launch a new project on which NML will be providing some of the teaching – our new suite of programmes in Socially Engaged Practice in Museums and Galleries. The benefits of the relationship are many but ultimately are about the added capacity and energy that both organisations can generate when they work in partnership. We have similar arrangements with other organisations – such as LCSD in Hong Kong, for example – and the opportunities that result are endless – partnership working is perhaps the only way to work in our sector.

What are the challenges for museums trying to find the right staff for future positions and what do you think could be improved when it comes to training in the sector?

The challenges at the moment are clearly great but employers are still talking to us about what they need. The School takes this input seriously and works to respond where it can. Training in the sector overall, however, could be improved with some form of validation – this was stopped a number of years ago and now it is very hard for prospective students to make an informed choice. There are a lot of programmes on offer now but so many of them are not up to the standards required by employers or deserved by learners. At Leicester, we have a large number of employers coming into the School and speaking directly to students about what they are looking for and we run a curriculum that is regularly updated and tested on our external examiners, at least 50% of whom will be senior professionals. This kind of dialogue and openness is the only way to continue to ensure that training is high quality. The other key element at Leicester of course is research – the inspirational and creative training that our sector needs won’t be met by solely providing training in specific museum functions (though this is vital). Rather, we need innovators and creative practitioners – this is what we seek to enable at Leicester.