the MA in Curating the Art Museum draws on the courtauld’s resources

‘The problem which I want to discuss in this paper is: how far can a training in art history be useful to someone intending to get a job in a museum?’ These were the opening words of a talk given at a conference in Edinburgh in 1954, by Anthony Blunt, then Director of The Courtauld. Maybe the ‘problem’ has never really gone away, though many seem to have solved it: Courtauld alumni head departments, galleries and museums across the capital, indeed across the globe. The realities of the museum profession have changed almost beyond recognition in half a century. As museums have increased in number, scale and ambition, the traditional notion of the scholar-curator, left in peace to acquire, conserve and catalogue is, to say the least, outmoded. Ivory towers are rare nowadays; there is little peace for the curator, no isolation, few certainties: indeed, as Karsten Schubert wrote in 2000, ‘Today’s curatorial job-description encompasses the widest possible range of skills…diplomat, scholar, educator, financial officer, henchman and entertainer...’

When I came away from a Courtauld MA in the 80s, the most common route was to learn on the job. Over the last decade or more, museum studies has becoming a burgeoning area, fuelling heated debates on the nature of the museum today, and on the part to be played by the university, the threats posed to scholarly values and the role of academic research by the new museum economy. 

The Institute’s interest in this area is, as I suggest, longstanding: academics and students curate exhibitions, specialists from many fields present career options to students at the Institute. An MA on History and Theory of the Museum was set up by Michael Kauffmann over 15 years ago. The new MA, currently in its first year, builds on all this activity.

The course addresses itself to graduates with art historical expertise who are keen to pursue their career, through one of the many roles within museum and galleries sector. They come from around the world, with interests ranging from Ancient and Medieval to the modern and contemporary. The MA offers an intense and varied programme over a full twelve months, and aims to strike a productive balance between theory and practice, broad argument and pointed detail. While it feeds on the vast and fast-increasing literature on the subject, its emphasis is on direct contact – with works of art, and with those who work with them, curators, directors, conservators, professionals in education, marketing, design and development and not least, with artists. The MA calls on visiting lecturers and professionals, and makes many visits, but mostly it draws on the resources of The Courtauld itself – its Gallery and collections, its conservation and teaching staff – and of the collections and institutions on its doorstep.

Students this year have worked on ’virtual display’ exercises at Tate Britain and the National Gallery, in sessions attended or led by the museums’ own curators. Each student has undertaken an internship, part-time over six months, in a London museum or gallery, from the Wallace and Royal Collections to the National Maritime Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy. These combine research opportunities with hands-on experience, and offer a perspective on a unique institution, all of which can inform group discussion and debate as the year progresses. Sessions are run at The Courtauld on museum and exhibitions history, on contemporary museum issues, architecture, acquisitions and display, on conservation and, crucially, on approaches to writing and speaking on art, all in public and group situations. The year is to culminate in an exhibition project, staged in the Institute’s own gallery and drawing on its collections, in which all these learning strands and experiences will find expression.

Group discussion, carrying an argument, persuading a public; balancing multiple tasks and working to strict deadlines; interpreting, handling, and above all looking at art, at how and why it is displayed; applying specialist knowledge to areas of common concern and sharing insights gained from different fields and places: these are all vital skills, of relevance to many future career options. The MA Programme Curating the Art Museum has been set up to address a fast-changing situation, and its approach has been informed by the many views canvassed from museums and galleries around London and more widely. The Programme aims to remain responsive and relevant. It is opportunistic; it has its own ways of working and it will continue to evolve over time. Who knows where the first year’s intake of students will find themselves in five years? What is clear is that many more are eager to follow them.

Martin Caiger-Smith, Head of the MA Programme, Curating the Art Museum