For the past fifteen years the Courtauld has offered an MA on the theme of museums. Begun by Michael Kauffmann during his period as Director, the course originally offered a practical training in museum work, and closely collaborated with the Galleries. John Murdoch, the next Director of the Courtauld Galleries, recognised that practical training for curatorship is offered by established university courses, and developed a different approach. It offers a wide perspective, theoretical and applied, on the history and the present condition of museums, an approach which appeals to quite a number of potential students.

The course concentrates during the first term on the history of art museums in Europe, from the seventeenth century to 1900. The emphasis is on Britain but the crucial narratives in Germany and France are also considered. An asset of teaching such a course in London is the wealth of museums in the city and nearby. The rich collections of the Courtauld Galleries and Print Room, as well as its rare book libraries, play a vital part in the teaching.

During the second term the course considers the development of museums in the twentieth century. It looks at such issues as changing approaches to collecting and display, the history and current state of exhibitions, permanent and temporary exhibition catalogues, the relation of the museum to its publics, education and communication, and the problems and possibilities facing art museums in the twenty-first century. A visit to Berlin and Dresden puts the history of British museums into arresting context. Students also have the opportunity to help organise two debates, open to all members of the Institute and to its supporters, on questions related to museums – on 28 November, the future of public collecting will be debated.

A section of the course is devoted to the history and current theory of conservation, taught by Helen Glanville of UCL in collaboration with the Courtauld Institute’s Conservation Department as well as the National Gallery and Tate. Students are encouraged to participate in the lecture programmes organised by the Learning Centre at Somerset House.

The course has been taught for the past three years by Giles Waterfield, and students have the opportunity to attend classes with numerous experts in the field. Some of these (notably Deborah Swallow, John House, Ernst Vegelin and Ghislaine Kenyon) work in the Institute. Some come from other institutions, including Arthur Macgregor (who practically invented museum history), Christopher Brown of the Ashmolean Museum, and Kim Sloan at the British Museum, as well as Paul Williams of Stanton Williams, a leading architect and exhibition designer.

Recent dissertation subjects have included the changing character of Impressionist catalogues in the twentieth century; the history of the audioguide; the Cecil Beaton exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery; and the politics of exhibiting Jackson Pollock.

Giles Waterfield

Below, two recent graduates give their views of the course.

“The Courtauld’s MA in the History and Theory of the Art Museum was a kaleidoscopic experience. In retrospect, the vistas afforded were unforgettable; a specially arranged private view of the Old Masters Gallery in the Zwinger Palace, Dresden; an early morning climb up scaffolding to scrutinize the frescoes undergoing restoration in a Santa Croce Chapel in Florence; and countless visits to the great museums of Britain, with insightful and intimate talks and tours by their directors, curators or conservators.

With the Courtauld Gallery and Somerset House collections adjacent, we had access to a renowned collection, to experts in a variety of fields and an opportunity to participate in the Adult Learning Programme by giving lunchtime talks to the public.

The course was cumulatively, a chance to learn first-hand about how and why museums came into being, to think about the major issues of past centuries and of today, and to explore the career possibilities of an expanding industry. The course builds a vital foundation for grasping future challenges, and provides an opportunity for the next generation of minds that will meet them with confidence and imagination.”

Sarah Knelman

“The Courtauld’s History of the Museum MA was a breath of fresh air. Spanning some three centuries of museum history, the course covers many of the important issues museums have faced, and continue to face. We debated the birth of museum collections at the British Museum, the representation of history in the museums of Berlin, the implications of art conservation in front of a restored fresco in Florence, and the concerns facing the display of an art collection at Tate Modern. During eight fascinating months I found myself writing on topics as wide-ranging as the conceptual conservation of museum-displayed fourteenth century altarpieces and the history of the audioguide in art museums!”

Loic Tallon