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Museum Studies emerges as Britain’s top research department

Research in Museum Studies has been identified as world leading.

Museum Studies emerges as Britain’s top research department

Museum Studies at Leicester has been identified as having the highest proportion of world leading researchers of any subject in the UK.

18 December 2008

Recent decades have seen museums worldwide undergo radical transformations. Museums and galleries have been evolving to become vibrant and dynamic organisations which, in varied ways, have become increasingly relevant and responsive to the needs of the diverse communities they serve. Museums today are widely viewed as organisations with a unique role to play in lifelong learning, key players in wider processes of economic, social and cultural regeneration, and as places with a capacity to nurture individuals’ sense of place, identity and belonging, and their respect for and understanding of different communities. The familiar stereotype of the dusty, unchanging and unwelcoming institution primarily concerned with the business of collecting, preserving, researching and documenting objects for the benefit of a privileged minority is now, in reality, increasingly rare.

In its 40+ year history, the Department of Museum Studies – the only department in the country solely devoted to the study of museums and galleries – has played a critical and highly influential role in this reinvention and reinvigoration of museum philosophy and practice. By training creative and critical professionals who have transformed organisations and professional practice throughout the world, by producing original, rigorous and internationally influential research, and by working collaboratively on a range of pioneering initiatives, the Department has made a significant and sustained contribution to the international cultural sector, to the diverse communities served by museums, to the field of museum studies and to the academic reputation of the University.

Since 1966, over 3,000 students from more than 40 countries have studied with the Department

In his speech at London’s Foundling Museum on March 12 2007, Culture Minister David Lammy cited research undertaken by the University to demonstrate the ‘increasing educational role that all museums are now playing in engaging with children and young people beyond the classroom, at all stages and within all subjects covered by the curriculum’ and especially their effectiveness in reaching schoolchildren in the most deprived parts of the country.

The Department’s international reputation is based on its research contributions to the emergent field of museum studies and the vocational relevance and impact of its taught programmes which draw upon that research.

Shaping a new discipline

The Department has benefited from growing with, and simultaneously shaping, the field of museum studies. In its 40+-year history the range and scope of the Department’s activities has expanded enormously, and its research has grown in depth and rigour. From the 1960s and into the 1970s, the Department pioneered the development of standards of practice and training which began to be recognised internationally. From the 1970s and into the early 1980s the Department became involved in wider professional debates regarding museum provision and practice and, from the mid-1980s, museum studies at the University developed a research-driven and theoretically-engaged approach, whilst sustaining its commitment to postgraduate education. More recently, the establishment in 1999 of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) has added a more investigative and policy-aware strand to the Department’s research portfolio, attracting external research funds totalling over £1.6 in its first 8 years of operation.

The Department’s research strategy reflects this history: we undertake research which is responsive to the changing international, political, intellectual and social contexts of museums; it reflects a continuing desire to significantly shape the methods and agenda of the museum studies field; it embodies a commitment to produce outputs capable of altering our understanding of the museum and contributing to the museum’s constant need to change.

The Department’s creative instincts are also reflected in its teaching programmes. These are widely drawn upon by universities around the world and, indeed, many of our graduates have subsequently been employed to develop these programmes. The Department has also run ‘train-the-trainer’ programmes to assist international colleagues in establishing courses, for example in Latvia.

Following the success of its part-time programmes but recognising the increasing time pressures on professionals and the need for flexible learning, the Department introduced its distance learning programmes in 1998 – the first such development in the UK. Whatever their personal circumstances, individuals can gain access to learning whether to professionalise their museum practice, switch professional roles or achieve career advancement. Alongside our established Museum Studies programmes, we are developing and introducing new, more highly specialised distance learning programmes. The MA in Interpretive Studies was launched in 2006, MA in Heritage Learning and Visitor Studies will be launched in 2008 and MA in Digital Heritage in 2009. These initiatives reflect our attempts to deepen and extend learning into areas which are becoming increasingly important in museums and modern society.

“The Department of Museum Studies is an internationally recognized leader in the museum field, with its exemplary commitment to teaching, research and service. The Department’s ability to maintain this balance is unrivalled, and is marked by persistent innovation and commitment. Their Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, the Leicester Readers in Museum Studies, and the recent learned conference organized by the Department and entitled “The Museum: A World Forum”, are all testimony to the Department’s ongoing and energetic commitment to both theory and practice. At a time when many university departments are troubled by an unbalanced commitment to either teaching or research, this department is truly exceptional with its enduring commitment to both. One need look no further than the scholarly achievements of the staff and the employment histories of their graduates for confirmation of the Department’s lasting contributions to the advancement of museum studies”.

Dr Robert R. Janes, former President and CEO of the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Canada and Editor in Chief of the Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship.

Training the world’s museum professionals

Today our overarching purpose, widely used on external communications, is defined in the following way:

The Department of Museum Studies works with museums, galleries and related cultural organisations internationally to develop creative practice through leading edge teaching and research

In line with this purpose, one of our principal activities is to act as a centre for nurturing creative and thoughtful practitioners. Our aim is to create, support and inspire practitioners to develop imaginative solutions to the challenges faced by museums in different contexts – to equip practitioners working in widely differing environments to seize the opportunities and avoid the pitfalls that continuous change can bring. We achieve this, not only through our taught programmes, but through the provision of continuing professional development opportunities for the sector. For example, every 2-4 years we organise a major international conference which brings practitioners and researchers together to explore new concepts and ways of working. The most recent, entitled The Museum: A World Forum was held from 25-27 April 2006 and marked the department’s 40th anniversary. It attracted over 300 delegates, half of whom came from overseas.

The Department combines its proactive approach to leading and shaping the museum studies intellectual agenda with an alertness to the needs of the international museum sector – and a commitment to constantly evolving in response to those needs. This is evidenced, in recent years, by the strategic appointments we have made of individuals who bring to the department specialist expertise which enables us to address identified ‘skills gaps’ within the sector. In 1997 we appointed a museum marketing practitioner, whose experimental work in engaging new and underrepresented audiences in museums has, over the past decade, strengthened our research, teaching provision and reputation in this area. In 1998, in response to the findings and recommendations of a study, commissioned by the department, into the changing skills needs of the sector, a specialist in new media was appointed. This person has trained young practitioners and scholars who have subsequently led new media innovation in museums and pioneered digital heritage teaching provision in other Universities.

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