What are museums all about?
Museums bear resemblance to charitable trusts and charitable corporations, in that they are expected to perform certain collections-based and educational functions in service to the public. These functions, referred to as "public trust functions," are core to all museums: collecting, caring for, managing, preserving, interpreting, and exhibiting collections. Each museum performs these functions according to a designated mission. These core functions, along with the public service-directed purposes underlying them and the mission-driven means of implementing them, are what distinguish museums from all other institutions.
Museums are among the fastest growing institutions in the United States-more than 15,000 and growing. Museums specialize in many different subject areas, such as art, history, natural history, archaeology, industry, earth science, life science, etc.; and within these broad subjects may be found many specialties, such as military museums, automobile museums, folk art museums, aviation museums, and children's museums. Zoos, arboretums, and aquariums are also museums, in that they amass, care for, and exhibit collections, albeit live ones. By far the largest majority of American museums are small history museums serving local or regional audiences.
What are Museum Studies all about?
The field of Museum Studies is a family of disciplines that informs and supports the core functions of museums. Examples of museum disciplines are collections management and registration, collections care, research and curation, exhibition development, education, audience advocacy, marketing, fund-raising, and administration. The practitioners of these disciplines are generically referred to as "museum professionals." They hold such positions as curator, registrar, collections manager, museum educator, exhibit designer, development officer, and director, but many variations on position titles occur. Increasingly, museum professionals seek and are expected to acquire a Certificate or Master's degree emphasizing one or more museum-specific disciplines, such as collections or education as well as hold a higher degree in a special field relevant to the type of museum or museum department they aspire to work in, such as a Master's in anthropology, biology, art history, entomology, history, etc., or a PhD in a specialized field of art or science.
Museum professionals are uniquely disposed to collaborate across these disciplines in order to ensure the success of their institution. As the museum profession matures, moreover, the body of knowledge supporting these disciplines grows, and standards of performance continually rise. Accordingly, each discipline tends increasingly to become its own specialized career track, and museum professionals tend to specialize in certain areas. For example, laboratory conservation is now considered a field in its own right quite separate from museum studies, with such specialized tracks as painting conservation, conservation of works on paper, textile conservation, and object conservation-and it is practiced largely in the private sector.
Increasing competition for employment in the museum field contributes to the need for higher degrees and the desirability of gaining actual experience before entering the job market. Following in the footsteps of conservators, many museum studies graduates are now going commercial and establishing firms that cater specialty services to museums. Firms dedicated to museum exhibit production are among the fastest growing, but one observes independent firms specializing in museum insurance and risk management, art transport, and curatorial services. In addition, some large businesses now seek staff expertise that can respond to growing needs among museums for legal services, retirement packages and other human resource needs, and museum equipment and building design.
Another fast-growing job destination for museum professionals is the academy, that is, colleges and universities that teach museum studies as an academic discipline. The popular appeal of museums makes museum studies an attractive course of study for students. Museum studies content has broad application in many disciplines and many walks of life. Museum theory courses-such as classes dealing with the Latino phenomenon, audience advocacy, and visitor pyschology-may seem surreal to those who are practitioners at heart but are widely transferable within humanities, communications, education, law, sociology, and anthropology, for example.
What makes the ASU Museum a Teaching Museum?
The Arkansas State University Museum is a "teaching museum"-a stage for both formal and informal academic instruction in the museum disciplines. The ASU Museum is providing expertise and coordinating effort toward the development of Arkansas's first museum credential program. As part of the Museum's Teaching Museum Initiative, students are involved in real-life collections work, shouldering operations that in many museums are performed by seasoned professionals.
The Museum's director, Marti L. Allen, coordinates development, delivery, and assessment of the formal museum studies classes. Under Dr. Allen's direction, the Museum's professional staff participate in the instruction of a series of classes at the graduate and undergraduate levels. The courses engage students in accessioning, inventorying, cataloguing, and research, for example. A significant portion of the Museum's exhibitions, public programming, and promotional endeavors are driven by the learning environment instructors construct for students in these classes. Students participate in day-to-day operations that in other museums are performed by professionals. Through hands-on learning, students gain practical, marketable experience that transfers directly to museum careers and public service.
What Museum Classes are taught in the ASU Museum?
In Fall 2007, the ASU Museum introduced a series of formal museum studies classes taught by the Museum's own staff at the doctoral, master's, and undergraduate levels. Currently offered through the Department of History and the Department of Heritage Studies, these classes are primarily practice driven, rather than theory oriented. They are designed to arm students pursuing a broad range of museum and collections-oriented careers with sufficient practical knowledge to "hit the floor running" when they enter employment. The curriculum focuses on care, management, and interpretation of collections; exhibition of collections; and issues in museum management. The museum courses now being offered at the graduate level constitute a pilot program for what will eventually become a stand-alone museum credential, most likely a Certificate in Museum Practices. We expect to formalize the curriculum into a museum credential within the next few years.
The combined objectives of the museum courses are to:
- Help students identify their interest levels and aptitudes for various museum disciplines;
- Introduce students to various museum disciplines through first-hand, marketable experience;
- Teach practical skills in various core functions of museums;
- Introduce students to the team approach to museum work;
- Provide opportunities to make professional contacts; and,
- Impart an appreciation of museums in society.
These classes provide instruction and experience in all of the eight major disciplines comprising the museum profession:
- Collections management, cataloguing, registration, and museum law;
- Curation and curatorial research;
- Education and interpretation;
- Collections care and preventive conservation;
- Exhibition design and production;
- Marketing and promotion;
- Development and fund-raising; and
- Museum management.
Who can take the Museum Studies classes?
Museum classes listed through the Heritage Studies Program are offered to doctoral students; while those listed through the Department of History are offered to master's and undergraduate students. Enrollment to all museum studies classes is limited and requires the permission of the class instructor, thereby ensuring a closely mentored experience and good balance in student skill level.
Target students of the classes are those wishing to pursue a museum career as a generalist in small- to medium-sized museums in which they would "wear many hats;" and those who wish to be effective as employees in larger museums whose program planning is guided by the increasingly popular team approach, knowledge of collaboration across museum disciplines (registration, curation, education, exhibitions, etc.), and a solid understanding of collections practices which underlie and drive all museum functions.