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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

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Jennifer Barrett is the Director of Museum Studies and Associate Dean (Postgraduate Coursework) in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney. More about Jennifer Barrett

‘Protecting the past, safeguarding the future’: museum studies, the profession and museum practice in Australia
by Jennifer Barrett

Museums and their associated disciplines differ in terms of their intellectual bases and their physical manifestations, the supporting technologies and specialist skills that underpin their activity, including the processes employed to attract and inform audiences … Museum theory and rigorous intellectual discussion is in many ways having trouble in aligning with museum practice, whilst the debates around museum ethics, cultural and humanitarian rights, values and responsibilities are being played out in an increasingly activated public arena of attention to these issues. [1]

A tension between theory and practice is apparent in the above quote from the 2007 Annual Conference of Museums Australia (MA) President’s report. An alternative perspective was presented at a sector forum in Sydney celebrating International Museum Day in 2000 by the then Director of the Powerhouse Museum, who suggested that specialised museum studies programs were not very useful or indeed essential. A good degree in a relevant discipline was a preferable basis for becoming a museum professional, suggesting that once in the sector ‘learning on the job’ was the place for developing knowledge about museums and how they work.

This chapter considers these tensions with reference to their history in Australia and their related international context. It argues that museum studies education provides vital opportunities for maintaining and developing vibrant museum practices and that genuine relationships between the museum sector and educational institutions should be based on this premise, but perhaps not museum studies as it has previously been understood. This chapter draws upon the sentiments of Museums in Australia 1975, which believed ‘a course in museum studies … will do much to safeguard the collections held in Australian museums’. [2] Museum studies as an area of academic research and teaching can indeed inspire new scholarship and innovation in a sector which, like many other areas of the public sector in Australia, has undergone enormous change in the last decade. These tensions, I suggest, emerge from a history of museum studies programs being synonymous with the museum sector and its representative bodies at a time when the museums sector was less segmented and complex, and perhaps not scrutinised in the public domain in the way that it is now. Other areas of education that intersect significantly with museum studies, such as heritage studies, arts administration and conservation, are also worthy of inclusion here, but for the purposes of this chapter I have focused on the discourse surrounding museum studies.

Significant developments in the museum sector

Writing in the early 1990s, Stephen Weil doubted that museum work would be lauded as a profession due to its diversity: the diversity of disciplines among museums and the diversity of the knowledge and skills required within any particular museum. Weil also argued that museums’ associations in the US have completely failed in relation to the academic training that is offered for entry into the field. This problem involved the ‘enormous and unsupervised proliferation in recent years of so-called “museum studies” programs’ and ‘the question of whether these programs are truly the best preparation for working in a museum’. [3] Weil suggested that the thousands of dollars spent on ‘museum studies’ might better be spent on discipline-based programs. Ultimately, he believed, it would be a ‘terrible mistake’ to control the entry of new practitioners to the field by ‘licensing or certification procedures’. [4] There is a ‘remarkable variety of backgrounds … [and] an equally remarkable variety of paths … called upon to perform a still equally remarkable variety of tasks’. [5]

Weil’s acknowledgement of the diversity of the sector and its contribution to the museum is in keeping with developments in the late twentieth century. The new museums, restructured museums, social media, the changing roles of curators, and so on, raise numerous issues about the relationships between museum professionals, educational institutions and the state. Suzanne Macleod writes about tensions between governments or boards and the forces of curators and academics, between scholarship and visitor-centred public programming. She defines museum studies as ‘an area of enquiry made meaningful through the participation and active involvement of individuals and communities in training and education, research and practice’. [6] She discusses the problem of the ‘theory vs. practice dichotomy’, and the difficulties of providing university-based training of relevance within the museum sector. [7] Macleod proposes a three-dimensional conceptual model for thinking about museums studies – made up of the different dimensions of museum practice, museum studies training and education and museum studies research – where universities, museums, practitioners and scholars form a ‘community of practice’.

This sounds sensible, but is very challenging given the diversity and the complexity of the museum sector in Australia. The section on Museums and Art Galleries in Year Book Australia by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reports on a survey in 2003–04 of museums that were open to the general public. [9] At the end of June 2004 there were 1329 museum locations operating in Australia. A staggering 49.1 per cent had no employees but were run by 9382 volunteers. The 676 museum locations with employees employed 7624 people, who were assisted by 11,061 volunteers. Of the employees, 4291 were full time and 3252 were part time. Only 13.5 per cent of the employees were curators. Given these developments in the museum sector, what changes have occurred in the higher education sector and how have these changes impacted upon the relationships between the museum sector and museum studies?

Significant developments in museum studies education in Australia

Since the 1970s museum studies programs have been offered at a postgraduate level in universities around Australia. The 1990 report on the Development of a Training Strategy for the Australian Museum Sector resulted in one of the first iterations of competency-based training for the sector. [10] Also included in the report was an indication of how museum studies programs had significant links to the museum sector, yet with differing perspectives on the role of tertiary education in the sector. Parallel to this (as outlined by Ian Cook et al. on this site), the first materials conservation program was established in Canberra in the late seventies. In recent years, the rise of Vocational Education Training (VET) and TAFE programs has highlighted issues about the levels of qualifications necessary or desirable for working in the museum sector and indeed, which organisations are in the best place to deliver them. Not to be forgotten is the real contribution made to the sector by volunteers and the consideration of their training and educational needs in this respect. VET has gone some way to deal with the needs of those not eligible for tertiary study, but the development of this within the museum sector is uneven throughout Australia. [11] The development of the VET programs is partially due to the ways in which changes in the tertiary sector mean that universities are no longer able to offer such short programs as they did in the past. [12]

The international context has also influenced museum studies in Australia. International discussion about museum studies coincides with the development of museum studies courses in Australia. In 1979 the International Committee for the Training of Personnel of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) met in Leicester (England) to continue previous discussions about the training of museum professionals. [13]

The reason for this choice of subject was threefold. First, the very unequal development of training from one country to another; second, the opportunity to make a general proposal of such training programs drawn up according to a universal, theoretical scheme which could then be adapted according to national requirements; and thirdly it was decided that this discussion would be followed up by a discussion on means, methods, and techniques used for this training … [14]

The emphasis is on a general museum studies, ‘not specialists in one specific field such as conservation’. [15] A general syllabus with the capacity and integrity to encompass disciplines in the human and natural sciences was needed because ‘university trained people [who] leave the university as fully qualified zoologists or art historians, very often they have no museum training in museum studies – neither general training nor practical experience’. [16] In this context the general syllabus at a university level was expected to meet minimum requirements. Allowing for differences between nations, a general curriculum was accepted by the meeting as: the international museum context, collection management, museum management and museum services. [17] While Leicester University appears to have led this direction of curriculum, they did consult internationally with museum studies programs, including the University of Sydney program, which commenced in 1976.

A review of seminars and conferences about museum studies education in Australia from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s reveals a general expectation that the industry should guide the museum studies programs. Reflecting trends in Britain, a 1989 symposium insists on this character of the relationship. [18] The publication from the Museum Training Symposium held in Sydney outlines the need to understand the impact of increasing numbers of non-museum professionals entering the museum sector (in areas such as finance and marketing),[19] the importance of ensuring that graduates are able to work within communities and in various regions (urban and remote), with local government and other funding agencies. In-service training for museum staff, voluntary staff and boards of management was considered, as was the development of management skills and training, and management and care of Aboriginal cultural material in the sector. There appears to be an emphasis on training the professional as distinct from training and education. The emphasis on the core aspects of ‘museology’ (i.e., museum context, collection management, museum management and museum services) prevails.

The invention of the ‘new museology’ in the late 1980s reflected a profound shift in the museum studies literature. A profession engaged in academia around the idea of praxis developed the new museology. [20] Peter Vergo coined this term in 1989 in an attempt to develop new methods for ‘studying museums, their history and underlying philosophy, the various ways in which they have, in the course of time, been established and developed, their avowed or unspoken aims and policies, their educative or social role’. [21]

Vergo, and contributors to the volume from the sector and academia, signalled a new direction at the time to demystify the role of the museum by revealing how the museum constructs knowledge and to significantly redress the museum’s understanding of the importance of visitors as active agents in the production of knowledge. These developments saw the rise of education departments and visitor studies in museums. In the twenty-first century, museums exist within new political and cultural contexts. In particular, museum sectors in countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia responded to critiques of their role in the process of colonisation and appropriation of material culture. The responses are evident in a range of policy debates for museums and their related professions, and governments, primarily relating to social inclusion and particularly repatriation.

Also of significance is how developments in social and cultural policy reflected similar concerns about access and provision of public services to communities. In academia new art history (i.e., social and feminist), social and public history, gender and cultural studies became better known for their tendency to unsettle the canons. Museums, in this context, also became prime sites for engaging with the critiques of power for these areas of the academy in particular. It is at this point, I argue, that these developments are also central to the re-configuration of many museums in Australia and the intellectual frameworks used in the museum context. In other words, the academic disciplines central to museum scholarship and practice were also challenged in debates by these new approaches in the museum world.

For example, in Australia critical developments in art history, anthropology and history have been central to the re-conception and presentation in museums of natural history and social history and vice versa. Several examples are well known: the interplay between history, History Wars and the National Museum of Australia; the way in which Curator Mary Eagle’s mid-1994 re-hanging of Australian art at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), including the Rex Nan Kivell Collection, was thematic, reflecting new art history rather than emphasising a chronological hang; the way in which the Indigenous Australians exhibition at the Australian Museum involved extensive consultations with Indigenous people, as well as Indigenous museum staff being part of the exhibition development team, reflected changes in the discipline of anthropology in the nineties. Which brings us back to the issue of education and training for the museum profession and the relevance of museum studies programs to museums: have museum studies programs changed sufficiently (or too much) to reflect developments in the sectors and relevant disciplines? [22] How do museum studies programs determine and review their curricula? The new museology, I suggest, introduced museum studies as a generator of content as it engaged with the museum in new ways. It has gone on to inspire more scholarship, often with an aim to be both educative and useful to the sector while also engaging with the respective concerns of academic disciplines. [23]

Given the above changes over time, are the subjects that characterised museum studies in the 1970s still taught in museum studies programs? In short, yes. Most courses in Australia include units on the history of museums and museology, collections, management/administration practices and principles, public programs and education.

The following is a list of the courses that generally reflect this pattern.

  • The Australian National University offers postgraduate coursework and research programs on campus in museums and collections, art history and curatorship.
  • Deakin University offers courses on campus and by distance in the areas of museum studies and cultural heritage. Deakin also offers short professional development courses on and off campus.
  • The University of Sydney offers postgraduate courses and higher degree research programs on campus in both intensive and regular modes in museum studies and art curatorship and at times offshore intensively in Hong Kong. Heritage studies is offered as a major at an undergraduate level and the university plans to introduce global heritage studies at a postgraduate level in the near future.
  • The University of Adelaide offers programs in art history and curatorial and museum studies on campus at a postgraduate level.
  • Queensland University offers postgraduate programs in museum studies on campus and occasional field courses in locations such as Vietnam.
  • Curtin University of Technology offers postgraduate programs in arts and cultural heritage studies on campus and by distance education.
  • The University of Melbourne offers postgraduate programs in art curatorship, museum studies and conservation.
  • The University of Canberra offers undergraduate courses in museology and heritage preservation and cultural materials conservation.

With the exception of Macquarie University, most courses are taught at a postgraduate level and include potential pathways to PhD research or professional degrees. [24] This listing is indicative only and demonstrates the current range of museum studies programs offered in Australia. [25] What such a list does not indicate is the way in which specific academic disciplines, such as history, art history, archaeology and anthropology, philosophy within the respective institutions intersect with museum studies programs. This does vary significantly between institutions, as does the research output of each program. Such a list does not indicate the impact of individual academics who work on the subject of museums in their respective discipline base in areas such as education or history, for instance.

What is not often recognised in debates about museum studies in Australia in the late 1980s is how this development coincided with significant changes to the delivery of higher education, in particular the conversion of Colleges of Advanced Education and Institutes of Technology, which became universities. The Dawkins reforms to higher education were to have great implications for postgraduate education in particular. [26]

By the early 1990s, the capacity to charge fees for postgraduate courses was introduced. In very recent years the higher education landscape also changed significantly with the introduction of fee-paying undergraduate courses and preparations for the introduction of the Research Quality Framework (now replaced by the Excellence in Research for Australia initiative). Add into the mix the expansion of the Australian higher education market, which has been extended to international students (taught locally and offshore), and a complex and dynamic picture emerges. The implications of this for museum studies in Australia are interesting, and perhaps show that museum studies has been ahead of its time in being well established and having a strong partnership with an identifiable sector. Nevertheless, the institutional pressure for such courses has changed dramatically. Overall, the number of courses has increased, although several courses of significance were not offered for a period of time, at least in their previous form, such as the conservation program at the University of Canberra, which still offers museum studies within a cultural heritage program and has recently developed the Bachelor of Cultural Heritage and Bachelor of Heritage Conservation. [27] Academics are increasingly required to ensure that such programs are financially viable and not isolated units within the academy. [28] Teaching is to be informed by research and have links to the relevant sector. These changes raise a number of issues about how the evolving museum sector and the changing landscape of museum studies education can be articulated in a mutually beneficial manner.

The museum sector and museum studies

Underlying the discussion about the history of curriculum for museum studies has been the expectation that professional staff assist museums to meet certain standards and to be recognised by funding agencies and the sector. Standardisation for museum sector professionals is a difficult issue in a diverse sector such as Australia. Demanding standardisation for museums in general has produced significant discussion about resources, professional development, education and training. Individual university programs in Australia, however, have established relationships with particular museums and staff that contribute in various ways to program development, delivery and research. [29] Standardisation in museums focuses somewhat on the level of education and training of staff, with emphasis also placed on the physical conditions of the institution and the practices and policies it follows. [30]

In Australia, this issue of standards may inform the curriculum of museum studies programs but is not monitored or formally guided by any particular area of the museum sector. Museum studies programs are, however, wise if they choose to remain informed by the developments in this area and to consult accordingly. Similarly, the sector can elect to inform or involve museum studies programs in such processes and discussions.

There is also the issue of ongoing training of existing museum staff in Australia and opportunities for mid-career education. The Museum Leadership Program managed by Melbourne Business School and sponsored by the Gordon Darling Foundation and the Australia Council for the Arts, has been a popular residential intensive program for directors and senior managers of museums and galleries; however it is under review. This course followed a similar one organised by the Council of Australian Museum Directors (CAMD) and delivered by Melbourne University through the executive education arm of the University’s Business School at Mt Eliza, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria. An option for many museum professionals in this category has been to attend the internationally competitive Getty Leadership Programs in Los Angeles, or to undertake a (discipline-based) PhD, or other management or public policy postgraduate programs.

In Australia in recent years it seems that the delivery of professional development programs has been most effective at a state-based level. While I understand that in recent years Museums Australia has made attempts to develop its capacity to deliver training programs, it seems to have been most effective in the facilitation and support of the state branches to deliver certified training programs. The strongest appears to have been Museums Australia Queensland. Other branches have tended to develop professional development seminars, and organisations such as Museums and Galleries NSW have contributed significantly to the landscape of the offerings for industry seminars across the state. Like the state branches of Museums Australia they contributed to the development of a National Training Network (organised through the Queensland branch of Museums Australia in 2003).

Writing about museum training needs in Western Australia, Ian McShane suggests ways for training providers to develop on-the-job training and non-academic courses for potential staff. [31] He maintains that the museum sector should encourage the provision of institutional accreditation along with individual training. He acknowledges that training requirements are different for each part of the museum industry: there should be a ‘landscape of museum training’ – a suite of programs and opportunities – that harness local requirements and existing museum assets and expertise.

In 2002 Museums Australia Queensland commissioned the report, Training and Professional Development for the Museum Sector in Queensland 1996–2002. This report summarises the activities of the MAQ regarding training and professional development for the museum sector 1996–2002; it builds on the findings of the McShane report. The MAQ report states that VET is the focus of the report, but that it is one of a portfolio of options available to museum workers, which includes museum studies courses, and professional development courses offered through Special Interest Groups of Museums Australia. Again the focus is on training volunteers — of the 123 institutional members of Museums Australia in Queensland, 52 per cent are entirely run by volunteer staff. The report states ‘experience indicates that, particularly for community and regional museums wholly or substantially reliant on volunteer labour, skills development through accredited training is important’, but should be ‘seen as part of a broader focus on industry development’. [32] This report went on directly to influence the establishment of a museum studies program at the University of Queensland. Such collaboration continues and is productive for the museum sector, prospective students and the University of Queensland.


Existing historical literature about museum studies focuses on the vocational aspects of courses, yet this seems outmoded in the twenty-first century for both museums and the higher education sector, particularly in Australia. In higher education in Australia today, teaching is required to be both informed by research and the needs of candidates and the related sectors — to ensure that the degree programs have value beyond the academic institution. In this sense, we see Australian government and institutional support for research collaborations between these institutions. This is not merely in the form of Australian Research Council Linkage Grants, but in a common everyday sense with closer relations between universities and museums. This could include the sharing of research resources such as libraries, greater knowledge of collections, and more regular engagement with the development of new knowledge.

In this chapter I have demonstrated that ideas have changed about what constitutes professionalism in the museum sector, and similarly how higher education and scholarship at least in Australia has changed over time. The history of the museum sector and the discussion about changes in higher education highlight that it is impossible for museum studies to provide for all of the professional needs of people working in the museum sector. Museum studies programs give people the foundations, tools and contacts with which to build their careers in the sector. Learning on the job is necessary, whether one has a museum studies degree or a good degree in a relevant discipline. A museum studies degree, however, provides the intellectual foundations to understand the history, theory and practice of museums in Australia and internationally. A good museum studies qualification should enable graduates to engage effectively with the debates emanating from other disciplines about the ideology, practice and future of museums. These capabilities are likely to lead to better museum practitioners, well-run museums responding to changing needs and scenarios, and a better experience for museum visitors. In summary, we can better protect the past and be more able to safeguard the future of museums.


1 Pat Sabine, President’s Report to Council, Museums Australia AGM, 18 May 2007, Old Parliament House, Canberra, p. 1.

2 PH Pigott, Museums in Australia 1975: A Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections including the Report of the Planning Committee on the Gallery of Aboriginal Australia, AGPS, Canberra, 1975, p. 69.

3 Stephen Weil, Rethinking the museum and other meditations, Smithsonian Institution, 1990.

4 Weil, Rethinking the museum, p. 83.

5 Weil, Rethinking the museum, p. 83.

6 Suzanne Macleod, 'Making Museum Studies: Training, Education, Research and Practice', Museum Management and Curatorship, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2001, p. 51.

7 Macleod, 'Making Museum Studies’, p. 52.

8 Macleod, 'Making Museum Studies’, p. 54. Also see E Wenger, Communities of Practices: Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

9 Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Museums and Art Galleries’, Year Book Australia, Canberra, January 2006. The scope of this survey included: historic trusts and sites; historical societies with a collection; house museums; social and natural history museums; archives (excluding the national and state archives); art galleries (excluding commercial art galleries); keeping places and cultural centres; outdoor museums; science museums; maritime museums; military museums and transport museums.

10 Development of a training strategy for the Australian Museums Sector: Arts Training Australia and the Council of Australian Museum Associations, Street Ryan and Associates, 1990.

11 Indeed the meeting of the MA National Training Network in Brisbane in 2003 discussed ways in which pathways to universities could be developed for museum workers with industry experience, VET qualifications and vice versa.

12 For instance, short courses for the museum sector were offered at some universities up until the late nineties. At a postgraduate level, universities now advise prospective students to enrol in units of study as non-award students with a view to the potential of transferring their program into formal pathways. Some universities do offer ‘Executive award’ for short courses. The problem still exists however, for volunteers and those without undergraduate qualifications.

13 The first ICOM symposium on Professional Training was held in 1978 in Brussels, Liége and Antwerp.

14 J-B Cuypers, ‘Introduction of the President’, in International Council of Museums International Committee for the Training of Personnel, Methods and Techniques of Museum Training at University Level, report of a symposium held in Leicester, England 16–22 September 1979, p. 6.

15 Cuypers, ‘Introduction of the President’, p. 6.

16 Cuypers, ‘Introduction of the President’, p. 6.

17 These areas were also reflected in ICOM’s 1972 Basic Syllabus for Museum Training and used for the development of a Treatise on Museology. See International Council of Museums International Committee for the Training of Personnel, Methods and Techniques of Museum Training at University Level, report of a symposium held in Leicester, England 16–22 September 1979, pp. 62–3.

18 Papers of the Museum Training Symposium, The University of Sydney, 16–17 February 1989; the symposium was convened by the Museum Studies Unit, University of Sydney and Museums Association of Australia (MAA) Inc. (NSW Branch) and funded by the Chancellor’s Committee at Sydney University and WESTPAC.

19 Mary-Louise Williams, ‘Non credit training’, Papers of the Museum Training Symposium held at the University of Sydney, Museum Studies Unit, University of Sydney, 16–17 February 1989, pp. 22–25.

20 Peter Vergo (ed.), The New Museology, Reaktion Press, London, 1989.

21 Vergo, New Museology, 1989, p. 1.

22 An account of how museums in Australia have influenced other academic disciplines is worthy of further investigation but is beyond the scope of this chapter.

23 Over the past 15 years the number of museum-related titles being published has continued to increase. Books about museums, written by geographers, philosophers, linguists and academics in cultural studies and museum studies have also proliferated.

24 For an excellent list of museum studies and related courses in Australia see Museums and Gallery Services Queensland, 2007 Education and Training Opportunities, available as a PDF from The Museums Australia website also has a list of museum studies courses available in Australian universities. Also see Jay Rounds, ‘Is there a core literature in museology?’, (Curator, Vol. 44, No. 2, April 2001, pp. 194–206) for a discussion about the bibliometric evidence supporting the claim that museum studies is a discipline.

25 Programs at the University of Technology Sydney, College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales, Griffith University and the University of Melbourne offer art administration and cultural leadership courses, areas that intersect with museum studies. Academics associated with these programs are engaged in research with museums and galleries.

26 Committee to Review Australian Studies in Tertiary Education, Windows onto Worlds: Studying Australia at Tertiary Level, Report of the Committee to Review Australian Studies in Tertiary Education, Australian Government Printing Service, 1987.

27 The University of Canberra’s museum studies and conservation courses were discontinued in 2003 and redeveloped for delivery in 2009. See Ian Cook et al. this site.

28 In other words, the postgraduate courses were not necessarily protected on academic grounds, as many undergraduate programs tended to be. Indeed, since Ministers Nelson and Bishop of the Howard government increased pressure on the sector to make undergraduate programs ‘economically viable’.

29 Furthermore, in the US it is expected that museum staff hold a traditional discipline-based education – at Bachelor or Masters level. In other words, museum studies is an additional qualification in the US that qualifies graduates of a particular discipline to work in a museum or gallery. See Reynolds, 2000.

30 For instance, see the use of the term by museums, regardless of size, and respective membership of professional organisations or bodies such as Museums Australia or related state-based affiliations, such as Museums and Galleries New South Wales (MGNSW) and Museums and Galleries Queensland. For an example of a state-based Standards program (see MGNSW website). MGNSW provides links to other museums standards programs in Australia and overseas. Working with regional partners and providing resources to undertake self assessment have all been integral to the success of this program.

31 I McShane, ‘Training for the Museum Profession in Western Australia: a report to Museums Australia (Western Australia)’, November 2001.

32 Museums Australia (QLD), Training and Professional Development for the Museum Sector in Queensland 1996–2002, February 2003.

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Cite as: Jennifer Barrett, 2001, ‘“Protecting the past, safeguarding the future”: museum studies, the profession and museum practice in Australia’ in Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), Understanding Museums: Australian museums and museology, National Museum of Australia, 2011, published online at ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6