What is Museum Studies at the University of Reading?

 

What is Museum Studies?

by Marina Rogov, Museum Studies Student at the University of Reading

In basic terms Museum Studies is the study of museums, this however is not a very detailed description. On the Museum Studies course at the University of Reading we cover a wide range of topics and get the opportunity to gain practical experience within museums. To try and provide a fuller description I got a friend to ask questions about the subject and I have answered them here:

What is a museum?

Let’s start with the essentials, a museum is an organisation that preserves history through the care and curation of objects and stories. They help to reflect on current issues in society and work alongside the community to make history accessible to all.

When did museum studies start as a subject?

People started to study museums, discuss and produce theories on them from about the 1960s onward, and the debate and discussion continues today. Our undergraduate course in Museum Studies at the University of Reading began as a series of modules that were made available to students from 2006. Now students can study for a degree in either Museum Studies with Archaeology, or Museum Studies with Classical Studies.

What modules do you do?

We do a bit of everything, with theory thrown in, from designing new exhibitions to looking at the history, policy and ethics of museums. We get a chance to study what goes on behind the scenes at these important cultural institutions. This year I am studying museum learning and engagement, which I really enjoy as it’s the area I want to go into. Next term we are studying museum curatorship and management which will help us with our final exhibition we have to plan in the final year of the course.

Who teaches it?

We have two museum studies lecturers, Dr Rhi Smith and Dr Nicola Pickering, both of whom have experience in museums and have a brilliant knowledge of the subject.

Why did you choose to study it?

I have always enjoyed museums, but I didn’t realise I could study it at undergraduate level until I started looking at Classics courses. It is rare to find a course for museum studies at undergraduate level so when I found the Classics and Museum Studies degree in Reading I knew it was the one for me, and it has definitely been the right choice.

What other activities are you doing as well as studying?

Volunteering! It is almost impossible to get a job in museums without previous experience, so volunteering is the way to go. Currently I volunteer in a school helping in their GCSE art classes and I also work at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading (the MERL). At the MERL I participate in the teachers’ panel and work on the front desk. I am also currently helping to organise the new Saturday club for Reading Museum Trustees. There are always so many opportunities in museums so my advice to prospective students is to get involved!

What do you plan to do after your course?

Hopefully I will find a job in education or outreach within the museums sector, as I enjoy working with the public organising activities and events. I am also considering a job in teaching as I enjoy volunteering in schools and the museum studies degree has enabled me to develop transferable skills and knowledge, such as learning how to design session plans. So whilst most people studying the course will go on to have careers in museums, the varied modules also allow you to identify an area in which to specialise or to explore alternative career possibilities.

Finally, would you recommend museum studies as a degree course?

Absolutely! Museums are part of an amazing sector, and there are many different jobs possibilities so you are likely to find the perfect role for you. Museums allow you to work with people from different backgrounds who share common interests and passions and I can’t wait to see where my degree will take me!

Marina Rogov, Museum Studies Student at the University of Reading

REME Museum of Technology

REME object handling 2015

REME object handling 2015

Last term we had a visit from Curator Jen Allison, of the REME Museum of Technology, who talked to our Curatorship and Collections Management students about the challenges of collections management at a military museum. Jen is a former student of the University of Reading and was our Volunteers Officer and Assistant Curator of the Ure Museum so it’s always great to welcome her back. Our University photographer Laura Bennetto took some brilliant photographs of our students with the REME handling collections so I thought I’d share some here.

REME object handling 2015

REME object handling 2015

REME object handling 2015

REME object handling 2015

The REME Museum was established in 1958 with mission of “preserving the heritage of the Corps of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers”. It’s always been ‘on our doorstep’ as museums go, being located in a nearby military base in the town of Arborfield, Currently massive changes are afoot at the REME Museum of Technology, they are packing up their collections and moving to a new location. In this new space they’ll have brand new permanent galleries and they are working with designers to put this together at the moment. It’s all very exciting and you can follow their move to their new home Lyneham via their blog REME Museum Manoeuvres.

REME object handling 2015

REME object handling 2015

Spring update

It’s been an action packed term so we thought we’d update you on some of the things that are happening. We’ve had Visit Days for new applicants, we’ve been visiting and researching our local museums and we’ve been watching as the changes to the Museum of English Rural Life start to take shape.

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This term we have the modules ‘Museum History, Policy and Ethics’ and ‘Curatorship and Collections Management’ running. On Thursday one of our former students and members of staff Jen Allison is coming back to talk to our ‘Curatorship’ students about her role as Curator at REME Museum. They have a big move coming up soon so she’ll have a lot to tell our students about.

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Our ‘Museum History, Policy and Ethics’ students were welcomed at Reading Museum last week. They got to see the early records of the museum and to explore how the collection was formed. Staff also talked about what it means to work in a local authority museum in the 21st century. We heard about the new Reading Abbey Quarter HLF bid, the long running loans box scheme, and the recent project ‘Hidden Voices’ which explores Reading’s LGBT history.

Students at Reading Museum 2015 2

Blog wise we’ve been a little quiet this year. However, we have plans for much more regular updates which will explore Reading based projects, talk to people in the sector about their careers, and provide hints and tips for people interested in museums. Last but not least there is a new vlog series in town called ‘How Many Curators?’ It is an informal and light hearted look behind the scenes of our museum, library and archive service. We hope you enjoy it.

students at reading museum 2015

Guest post #1 Hannah Neifert: Maier, Randolph and Reading

I mentioned in a previous post a visit to the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College. One of our talented student guides Hannah Neifert kindly agreed to write a guest post on the opportunities for student research at the Maier. Hannah also visited the University of Reading as part of their ‘The World in Britain’ programme and she also talks a little about her time in Blighty.

Hannah in the Maier

Hannah in the Maier

During the summer of 2012 I spent 8 weeks as an intern with the Maier Museum of Art located at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia. As an art history major with an emphasis in museum studies, this was the perfect opportunity for me to gain experience working in the museum/gallery setting. Under the supervision of the museum staff, my duties varied from writing extended wall labels for paintings on campus, researching artists for the upcoming exhibition, providing tours of the galleries, filing and organizing documents, and working hands-on with the hanging, dismantling and transferring several paintings.

They have a Hopper!

They have a Hopper!

 One of my lasting projects was to create an iPod audio tour guide for the galleries that hold our permanent collection. I recorded my voice reading a script which guided visitors through each gallery highlighting specific pieces and their relevance to the museum and art history. My work in the museum as an intern was exciting as I was surrounded by the Maier’s impressive collection during my time there. Aside from the internship position, the Maier Museum offers opportunities year-long for students on campus to engage with the art work. The curatorial seminar is an offered course by which students co-curate an exhibition drawing on artworks from the permanent collection, and other courses in English and Philosophy hold classes in the museum. Of course, the highlight of the year is the annual exhibition that has been taking place since 1911 and the Helen Clark Berlind Symposium. These events promote discussion and appreciation of contemporary art with the students and Lynchburg community. At the end of the year, the senior art history majors condense their final paper to a presentation which takes place at the Maier in the gallery which displays the senior studio art majors’ work. It is a conglomeration of student work devoted to studio art and art history.

Painting of a female sculptor

Painting of a female sculptor

   As I ramble on about my small liberal arts college here in Virginia, I would be remiss if I did not mention my time spent abroad at your very own University of Reading for the 2012-2013 school year. Leaving my beloved college was difficult, but I quickly found myself enjoying the experience Reading had to offer me. I was lucky enough to work hands-on with collections from the MERL and Typography department with Martin Andrews in his Ephemera Studies module. I found that while there was no Maier Museum of Art at Reading, the University’s campus held its own vast and unique collection of art and artifacts on campus with museums such as the Ure that satisfied my museum studies needs.

   Being a student at Randolph College and the University of Reading and having access to the museum collections at both locations has made a positive impact in my academic experience. There is nothing quite like being surrounded by wonderful art and artifacts on campus, and it is something I will cherish for years to come. Ars longa, vita brevis. 

Silchester Excavation Open Day July 2013

Students in woad

Students in woad

I was out at the  Silchester Excavation site today for one of their annual Open Days. For those of you that don’t know, the Silchester Excavation is examining one insula (or block) in the large Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum and the Iron Age settlement Calleva which lies beneath it. Since 1997 Prof Mike Fulford and Amanda Clarke have been leading a team of dedicated excavators at the site. Silchester is the University of Reading Archaeology Department’s training dig and students make up the majority of the ‘diggers’.

Visitors

Visitors on the viewing platform

Students also get involved in the interpretation of the site, this year under the guidance of freelance museum educator Ross McGauran. The site welcomes school groups and has a training pit, Roman garden, tours and activities for visitors to the site. I was also really impressed by their head-sets which linked visitors not to a pre-recorded tour but to a microphone. This meant that site directors could jump around the trenches providing information while visitors listened from a viewing platform. On a windy day like today this was much needed.

This kind of activity also gives students an opportunity to communicate their passion for the subject with the public. In recent blog posts I seem to be repeatedly talking about how easily the popular image of apathetic students is overturned when you look at heritage volunteering. Academics and professionals can assist in this process by providing support and giving students a platform to express themselves. To link back to a previous post on this blog two of the students were Nerdfighters and the three of us chatted about how we had been inspired to use social media to communicate about arts and heritage. I am currently thinking about how I can integrate social media training into my teaching to help students in this process. The students that I met at Silchester were excellent communicators and the kids who visited were enthralled. I walked back up the path at the end of the day to find a 7 and 3 year old ‘being archaeologists’ by picking up every piece of gravel. If you want to be similarly inspired the next Open Day is on 3rd August…

Silchester Insula IX

Silchester Insula IX

Postcard from America #2

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Firstly apologies for the lack of images and links. Blogging on the move with only an iPad takes some getting used to. I am actually posting this from Philadelphia train station!

Our second stop on our whistle-stop tour of the US was Lynchburg Virginia. Randolph College has had a long running exchange programme with the University of Reading. One of my former students Maggie is a Randolph alum who now works in an art gallery in the States. She had waxed lyrical about the Maier Museum (see image for website) so it was great to finally visit.

There was beautiful art in the gallery, including an exquisite Hopper. However, what struck me was how they use the museum as an experiential teaching space for their students. Students co-curate exhibitions, facilitate community education programmes and even create their own iPod tours. Our two student tour guides Stormy and Hannah had an infectious enthusiasm for the collection. Until recently the college was women only and the art, and their interpretation of it, also demonstrated a strong awareness of issues of gender. I was so impressed that I have asked them if they will write something the blog. I am sure that they will do more justice to the collection than I have in these few paragraphs.

Open Days

The open days were fun. I had two great students Georgia and Helen helping me out in the Ure Museum. We had a handling collection out and an iPad with apps designed by students and local schools

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Nearly everybody I invited to handle the objects said ‘I am clumsy I can’t be trusted with objects’. However, those who were brave enough to put on the white gloves were blown away by the age of the objects they were interacting with (2500 years for some of them). We even had a visit from our Twitter-bear Stu who was going around campus being photographed in different locations. Trying to get a tiny cuddly toy bear look like it is handling an object while protecting the object is really tough.

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We got a mix of people coming to talk. Some were just generally interested in the study of the past and looking at different programme options. They were amazed by the idea that you could have a museum at the end of your departmental corridor. Others were hunting out courses which offered museum studies teaching and experience. It made me realise how lucky we were to have the Ure Museum. Many university departmental collections have lost their geographical and intellectual connection to their once home discipline. Remembering this fact made me grateful for the foresight of the curators who fought to build this resource and keep it a part of teaching and research in the University.

Life after Reading #1 Laura Weill

This is the first of a blog series where I find out what former students and volunteers are doing in the museum, arts and heritage sector. First up is Laura, who has just come back to work for us!

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What are you doing now?

I currently work at the Museum of English Rural Life as a project assistant on the ‘A Sense of Place’ project. I am responsible for updating the online database, making the collection more accessible for researchers and those who are unable to visit the museum. This project has a particular emphasis on place and location as a point of access.

How did your time at Reading prepare you for this line of work?

Museum Studies modules
I did the Museum Studies modules in every year of my undergraduate; mainly chosen because I enjoy museums and was curious as to what could be learnt about them. It was the museum studies module I did in my first year that made me realise museums could be the career for me. I distinctly remember being set tasks where we had to plan trails to engage audiences, which I really enjoyed. I learnt quickly that a lot more thought goes into museums and their displays than I had ever imagined. Having finished the module in the first term, I was keen to get volunteering throughout spring and summer.

Modules in following years included a task where you had to research a chosen object, update the accession file, write a label and design a temporary exhibition around it. The bit of the task I was surprised to find very difficult was being able to write a clear and concise label. I had to ensure it was accessible in terms of readability, reading age and appearance. As well make sure the language was active and engaging. I was had to avoid the temptation to write everything I knew about the object in an essay style piece of writing. This skill has proved very useful for writing object descriptions and labels. This task also allowed me to experience the online database, which I now use every day.

Voluntary
In my first year at Reading University I volunteered on various MERL events and workshops, eventually becoming a weekend tour guide. This gave me a good understanding of the collection, what has been collected and why. This basic understanding is now vital, as I work through the catalogue, ensuring I mention objects’ significance in relation to the collection. Additionally the experience of public speaking during my time as a tour guide really improved my confidence and ability to talk to the public, very important now for interacting with visitors and researchers.

Degree
I did a joint honours degree in Archaeology and History of Art and Architecture (2008-2011). Both involved many trips to museums, galleries and heritage sites, where I was able to look at exhibitions with my new ‘museum studies eyes’, assessing whether they were successful or not. My degree involved a lot of research, skills I now use when updating the catalogue. Furthermore, I came to Reading thinking I wanted to become the next Indiana Jones, a dream squashed by my first experience of practical archaeology at Silchester, where I discovered I can’t differentiate between types of soil and don’t do well knelt in the dirt in all weathers. However, whilst there I assisted on public open days which I really enjoyed.

Thesis
Having enjoyed all of the museums studies modules, and with plans to do a museum studies MA, I decided to choose a museum based thesis topic. Here I compared and contrasted three galleries within the Ashmolean Museum; a statue corridor near the entrance, modern art room on the top floor and the newly refurbished cast gallery. Here I analysed how visitors used the space and then tried to assess why they did so. This allowed me to do more in depth museum studies research and confirmed that I would really enjoy a museum studies masters.

Paid work
At the end of my first year I applied to be a Saturday gallery assistant at the Museum of English Rural Life, a position I stayed in throughout my undergrad. This enabled me to interact with the public, gauge what they enjoyed and why. I was also able to put my tour guiding stills into practice, week after week.

Additionally, with the realisation that I was not going to be a practical archaeologist, in my second year I decided to volunteer in the visitors cabin at Silchester, and in my third year was employed as the visitors manager. This involved organising school and group visits, public open days and a lot of tour guiding. I was also responsible for training students in giving guided tours. Again my time here helped develop my ability to interact and engage with the public.

What training/experience did you get after leaving Reading?

After leaving Reading I went straight on to complete a Museum Studies MA at the University of Leicester, which was recommended to me as the place to study if you wanted to go onto work in the museum industry. It was an amazing year with some really interesting modules, trips and tasks. Everything I learnt was clearly relevant to a career in museums. As part of the master I did an 8 week work placement at Falmouth Art Gallery, allowing me to experience a different kind on museum. Here I did a lot of extensive research and cataloguing, as well as marketing and learning.

If you could give just one piece of advice for current students what would it be?

My main piece of advice would be to take every opportunity offered to you, don’t waste the time you have at university- volunteer, gain skills and experience everything you can. Before my time at the Museum of English Rural Life, I was relatively shy, reluctant to interact with the public. But having been strongly encouraged to do the tour guiding course, by the volunteer coordinator at the time, I gained a lot of confidence and discovered my passion for engaging the public with arts and heritage. I was very lucky to gain so much voluntary experience, which led me to get 3 jobs while at university, a place on an MA course and my current position as project assistant. So get volunteering, not only will it look good on your CV, you may discover a hidden passion.

Being a culture vulture in Reading #3

An art historian friend visited recently and there was a concerted effort to show her the culture that Reading had to offer. Walking around Reading with an art historian you become much more aware of the buildings that you usually ignore. She had made the journey because of an exhibition at Reading Museum John Tweed: The Empire Sculptor, Rodin’s Friend. She had even got a copy of the catalogue in advance. It was great to see that the book was authored and the exhibition co-curated by a former University of Reading student, now art historian, Dr Nicola Capon. I couldn’t take photos in the exhibition but there are some in the link. Tweed is dubbed ‘The Empire Sculptor’ and archival documents provide a fascinating insight into how these kinds of projects were negotiated, and the role that they played in the expansion and expression of empire. His “ideal” statues are also just really gorgeous to look at.

The same weekend I made good on a promise to visit an open studio, after my post on ‘slack spaces’ and artist run initiatives in Reading. After tweeting on that subject, Reading-based photographer Salvo Toscano got in touch to mention his open studio. He has some beautiful photographs from further afield but I was really drawn to the images from around Reading. Salvo lives not far from the Museum of English Rural Life (where I am based) and seeing local streets transformed by a photographer’s eye demonstrated the need to look again at my surroundings. It may be dangerous for somebody as clumsy as me to walk around staring up at buildings but I’m going to make a more concerted effort to stop and (don’t laugh) admire the beauty of Reading.

Being a culture vulture in Reading #2

So the Bank Holiday was a lot more about sitting in the sunshine than being a culture vulture. However, I did go to the Beer Festival which had live music from local bands all night and beer…obviously. The music has a bit of a blue grass feel and some of the acts from ‘Are You Listening?’ Festival popped up again. I decided to be patriotic and drank Welsh, which was also a chance to revive my Welsh GCSE. Brewers seem keen to fox the English with Welsh names i.e. I vaguely recall seeing an ‘Ysbyty Seidr’ (Hospital Cider) there before. ‘Cwtch’ means cuddle so you had to ask the bartender for a hug in order to get a pint of that. My favourite name was the cider ‘Gwynt y Ddraig’ which I believe means something like ‘Breath of the Dragon’. I don’t know whether it’s everybody’s idea of cultural activity but it is a pretty big date in the Reading calendar and CAMRA have an interesting place in sustaining our brewing heritage. I remember one museum curator told me that they got CAMRA members to help out with a display on the local pub in village life which is a really nifty way or interacting with different kinds of organisations.

Aunt Elsie's

Aunt Elsie’s Spring Fling stall holders

I was a little more refined at Aunt Elsie’s Spring Fling which was held in Market Square in Reading. Tea and bunting, vintage clothes and furniture, local arts and crafts – yay! It’s a really great show case for local makers. When I wanted to try on a vintage dress from Alexandra Vintage I ended up strolling into the HQ of the organisers 42 Market Place where there are open days and workshops.

One of the affiliated organisations Jelly has been around for ages (I still call it by its original name ‘Jelly Legg’d Chicken’) finding space for art and artists around Reading. It has parallels in the wider ‘slack space’ movement. This is an interesting phenomenon where artists and makers set up shop in disused retail spaces, and it seems to flourish in times of recession. It certainly brightens up the town centre to see art instead of ‘for rent’ signs and piles of bills through the windows of disused outlets. I’ve come across another nice example Slack Space Colchester.

I have made it a mini-mission to uncover some more detailed research on ‘slack spaces’ and these kinds of community art projects, specifically how museums may support them. When I hunt down some more information expect another post.

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Tea at Aunt Elsie’s Spring Fling