Museum workers complete work on a frame before putting it on display.
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What Is Museum Studies? Defining the Degree and Career Opportunities


History

Over 10 million people visited the Louvre in 2018, making it the world’s most visited museum, reports France 24, a news outlet in France. While the notoriety of the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo draw thousands of visitors into the Louvre daily, the museum staff continuously creates exhibits from its treasure of  38,000 items.

Museum studies is the examination of museums and their role in society, with a focus on the principles used by curators, staff, and historians of museums everywhere, from the Louvre to a quaint local history museum. These principles include acquiring, examining, and displaying historical objects for public study. Museum displays attempt to do more than entertain visitors; they reveal an artists’ views on the human condition, explore nature, educate the public about the human body or history, and much more.

A successful museum finds the pulse of a story within the collection. Museum studies professionals dedicate their careers to more than just displaying historical artifacts; they aim to bring context and meaning to visitors. Individuals interested in working in a museum can benefit from earning a Master of Arts in History that helps them develop skills related to museum work and hones their understanding of history’s influence and importance on contemporary life.   

Theories and Ethics of Museum Studies

What is museum studies? Museum studies, also known as museology, is defined by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as “the theoretical study of museum practices, encompassing the history and development of museums, infrastructural organization, and museum management.”

In terms of theory, museum professionals choose which curated items to display to the public based on the information contained or projected by objects. Curators, along with other professionals such as archivists, directors, or archaeologists, create an experience based on their perception of history. Several theories exist on showcasing art and artifacts. For example, a paper published by ICOFOM Study Series debates whether the current museum theory is based on “colonial structures of power.” The criticism is that cultural experiences that do not fit within this colonial approach are often excluded from exhibits or given limited exposure.

However, new technologies, preservation work, and improved accessibility to archaeological sites are challenging this perception of designing exhibits. Professionals in this field might consider alternative approaches to selecting work that constitutes the public’s experience. Ecomuseums or museums dedicated to underwater artifacts, for example, can play a role in the preservation of cultures and expanding public education.

In terms of ethics, curators must use caution when telling politically-charged stories such as those about slavery or colonization. All museum professionals adhere to a code of ethics that prevents museums from making ethically unwise choices such as displaying items obtained from illegal trade or that misrepresent cultural significance. Following this ethical code ensures that museums protect and promote history legally and professionally.

How Norwich University Can Help Prepare Students to Apply Museum Studies

Aspiring museum studies professionals need the knowledge and skills to work in the dynamic environment of this important public service field. Professionals can cultivate the competencies typically considered fundamental in positions associated with museum studies by pursuing a graduate degree like Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History. Norwich University exposes students to a curriculum that brings a unique perspective to studying the past. In the Public History concentration, students prepare for museum- and history-related careers through courses that include the following.

Introduction to Public History

This course offers public history fundamentals, covering topics like preservation, records management, digitization, and grant writing. Students refine analytical skills by solving complex problems such as how to acquire grant funding or find collection items. Aspiring museum employees can develop the skills needed in the workplace such as the technical writing required for recording collection items and drafting grant applications. 

Museum Studies

Before a collection item is displayed to the public, a museum must take many steps in its preparation. Building on the foundational skills in Introduction to Public History, students in this course cultivate the knowledge needed to curate emotional and ethical exhibits. Students simulate the experience of acquiring new items, researching and interpreting their significance, communicating findings to other staff, and displaying the items to the public.

Archival Studies

Museum studies students learn how to properly identify and care for key archival materials. Organizational skills are fine-tuned as students learn how to file and maintain these items for availability to researchers, museum staff, and the public. While archiving materials focus on preserving items for redistribution, students are taught how to continually grow an archive with items important to the historical record.

Careers in Museum Studies

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) estimates 55,000 museums exist worldwide. Each museum employs an educated group of professionals working together to bring its collection to the public. Typically, these professionals possess a graduate-level education, according to the American Historical Association (AHA). The following are a few of the career options available to students pursuing museum studies.

Curator

Curators are responsible for designing the museum's exhibition and collecting items.  Responsibilities can include writing grants for funding, acquiring items from other museums, or preparing items for the display that includes cleaning them and designing their presentation. Depending on the size of the museum, curators may travel to examine other collections or present on their collection.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job market for curators is expected to grow 10% between 2018 and 2028. As most applicants have advanced degrees, this market remains competitive, with the BLS encouraging applicants to obtain volunteer or internship experience. The BLS reported that curators in 2018 earned a median salary of $53,780.

Archivist

Archivists work alongside curators authenticating, preserving, organizing, and protecting the materials in the museum’s collection. Having a master’s in history can help potential archivists prepare for the technical and academic demands of the job. Archivists use a strict cataloging system that allows other staff and researchers to quickly locate items in their archive. As new materials are brought into the archive, archivists must document and digitize these items. Having an academic background in history can help an archivist organize these items logically for research projects or museum collections.

The BLS reported a median salary of $52,240 in 2018 for archivists. However, this can vary as some smaller museums combine the archivist and curator positions. The demand for archivists is expected to grow 9% between 2018 and 2028, according to the BLS.

Museum Director

Museum directors are responsible for the overall activities of the museum, including coordinating museum staff, planning yearly budgets, and negotiating new items. Museum directors also may spend their time organizing and attending fundraising events to promote the museum and seek funding for new projects. Typically, directors specialize in an area of their choice, such as ancient art or early human history.

The median salary for a museum director in 2019 is $47,099, according to September 2019 PayScale data. However, PayScale reports that museum curators with 10 to 19 years of experience earned a higher salary of $64,341.

Start Your Career in Museum Studies

Working in a museum-related occupation is about storytelling, revealing unknown parts of history to the public, and creating a connection with the past. All of the work dedicated to acquiring, researching, and displaying these historical artifacts tells a story that inspires conversation among visitors. Explore Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History program today to pursue a career in museum studies to help bring these untold stories to life. The degree exposes students to history’s effects on modern life, provides museum professionals with the intellectual framework needed to contextualize and create exhibits, and fosters an appreciation for a lifetime of learning. 

Recommended Readings

What Can I Do with a History Degree? Defining Different Career Tracks
History Careers at a Glance: Exploring Museum Curator and Museum Director Jobs and Salaries
Careers with a Master’s Degree in History

Sources

Record-Breaking Year for the Louvre with More Than 10 Million Visitors in 2018, France24
Missions and Projects, Louvre
Museology, UNESCO
Museology in Colonial Contexts: A Сall for Decolonisation of Museum Theory, ICOFOM Study Series
Historians in Museums, American Historical Association
Master of Arts in History, Norwich University
How Many Museums Are There in the World?, International Council of Museums
Archivists, Curators, and Museum Workers, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Average Museum Director Salary, PayScale