Museum studies old and new – education and research

International overview

In the 20th century, university courses in museum studies in Europe and overseas stressed practice rather than theory and trained professionals who later pursued traditional museum careers. This approach gradually changed and museum studies were included at all levels of university education and in a wide range of areas, while museums also came on board. Some universities set up museum studies departments, research centres were established and a significantly larger number of books and periodicals were published on the subject, especially in the past decades. Those participating in university-level research and education became the main theoreticians of ’critical museology’, the postmodern representatives of the international trend aimed at breaking with the previous linear narrative of museology, the opposers of the previous authoritarian practice. This new direction in theoretical museology also rejuvenated museum practice, replacing the approach of introversion and isolation by openness to external views and opinions.

The current importance of museum studies and the increased scope they cover compared to the beginning of its history are well illustrated by a randomly selected data: this year 72 MA programmes were launched in museum studies in the United Kingdom, 27 of these by London universities. The distribution of the courses is also revealing: the majority focus on curating (the Hungarian use of this term virtually restricts it to exhibition organisation, while in English it mainly means the ’management’ of museum collections), collecting and museum studies but they also include art gallery work, museum education and managing cultural heritage; there are even museum studies linked to various museum types.

European academic programmes also include courses developed on the basis of cooperation between nations; these were launched in 2007 and have been running ever since.

Having surveyed ‘simpler’ study programmes, a great example is the Museum Studies programme at New York University, from which more than 300 professionals graduated over three decades and found employment in the most diverse museums, arboretums, science centres, national parks, private, corporate and public collections, governmental organisations, historical societies and art galleries with their activities covering the entire spectrum of the museum scene: they work as directors, curators, museum educators, registrars, collection handlers, as well as media and customer relations professionals.

When looking at the research centres of the museum world, perhaps the most exciting programme is run by the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies (SCEMS) in Washington DC. Its Museum Studies website was active from 1998 and 2014; the oldest digital resource in the area, it provided a wide range of up-to-date information to facilitate museum work as well as research findings about the social role of museums.