Student Life: BBC & British Embassy

Student Life views written by former students from the MA Museums & Galleries in Education, UCL Institute of Education

We change museums – and museums change us

A brief tour through the highlights of my year with Museums and Galleries in Education, UCL (Class of 2019)

by Katerina Provornaya

I have recently received a long-awaited email about successful completion of my masters in Museums and Galleries in Education at UCL. Time to reflect on this journey, the most life-transforming one I’ve had so far. Not only has this Masters deepened my understanding of museum education, it also changed me more broadly. ‘People should be at the heart of what museums and culture does’ – in a nutshell, this is my central takeaway, informing my strategy’s values. This clear-cut, yet complex idea has been carefully and passionately delivered throughout the MA, with my personal insights being connected to the courses that were led by Caroline Marcus, senior research fellow at UCL. Here are a few thoughts about these three modules: Constructing and Interpreting Heritage Culture, Responsive Museums: Inclusion and Outreach, and Work Placement.

Very happy and relieved me the day after I submitted my dissertation – time to reflect on the year at UCL!

Constructing and Interpreting Heritage Culture

Constructing and Interpreting Heritage Culture was a highly engaging and practical course. It included a number of day trips, offsite seminars, combined with great lectures and workshops delivered by Caroline and some brilliant contributions by visiting lecturers. Every week our group explored a new dimension of heritage interpretation: we discussed tangible/intangible cultures, delved into community engagement and even learnt about costume interpretation. Each week we pursued a new adventure: an exciting behind-the-scenes tour at St Paul’s Cathedral, a full-day at the Watts Gallery with the Head of Learning, testing the learning programme at Hackney Museum, to name but a few.

Inside St Paul’s cathedral, the photo was taken after the behind-the-scenes tour

Furthermore, many contributing lecturers on the course are the masters’ alumni  – Caroline is skilful at building a network of like-minded museum educators who gladly share their knowledge with new cohorts. The module culminated in our final assignment, in which I chose the practical option and designed an interactive audio guide to provide access to the hidden collection of the UCL Art Museum, my own piece of interpretation in a digital form.

The magical atmosphere in the Main Library at UCL. I worked on my assignments here.

It boosted my creativity and underpinned by contemporary theory. This amalgamation of the two elements made me feel more confident in my own museum practice and has aided me immensely with my work thereafter.

A day at Watts gallery, full of tours, lectures and workshops

Caroline is knowledgeable of effective pedagogy, our classes being nothing like simple didactic lessons. Instead, we constructed our own meanings based on the shared best practices, relevant academic materials and our own discussions in and outside classes.

Responsive Museums: Inclusion and Outreach 

‘Museums change lives’ was the motto of the module. Every week we approached this statement in different ways and, by the end of the course, I became a firm believer in museums as advocates for people’s wellbeing and social inclusion. This time we investigated the connection between museums’ inclusivity and their funding – it was a highly practical approach that gave us an opportunity to think critically when programming for museums, galleries and other kinds of cultural organisations. Again, Caroline invited the best museum educators, fundraisers and policy makers from a large variety of institutions: from Arts Council England and the Museum Association, to Museum of London and Royal Academy of Arts. These highly practical workshops resulted in the final assignment, my first funding proposal, justifying the importance of my project and providing estimated costs.

I enjoyed this course a lot. The reason – it showed me that museums can be more than preserved collections. My previous academic background (MA in Art History)  was based on art as the pinnacle of museums’ purpose. I studied restoration, connoisseurship, history of collections and even chemical formulas of different pigments.

Bottles with pigments in Watts’ artistic studio – a good example of object-based learning!

This was important, however totally detached from the vital aspect of using art as a medium for connecting people, generating ideas and for starting new conversations. Responsive museums module filled my gap and made my own practice way more meaningful. The main thing I learnt is that museums are people, and this understanding came to me through Caroline’s lectures, tutorials, and conversations. Her passion, excitement and knowledge are the perfect trio to inspire action among young museum professionals like myself.

My favourite library spot. Here I spent weeks honing my assignments.

Work placement at the Victoria and Albert Museum 

The work placement is an integral part of the MA programme. Each student who chooses this module (the absolute majority!) was placed in one of the UK’s museums to undertake a placement in a learning or interpretation department. The allocation wasn’t random. Prior to meeting with our placement coordinators at the museum, each student had a matching interview with Caroline and Josephine a course administrator. At the interview, my previous experiences and existing interests were compared against the placement options. I followed Caroline’s advice and established that for me, the most important placement aspiration would be a meaningful and well-rounded experience. I was open to new tasks, because they stimulate me to break out of my comfort zone, learn faster and upgrade my overall professional profile. My voice was heard and words can’t express how delighted I was when I received the email confirming that I was chosen to work with the Victoria and Albert Museum!

At the first meeting with my V&A team, I was assigned to conduct an independent audience research project, evaluating visitors’ experience during half term and for summer holidays activities. Thanks to the regular and dedicated support of the team, I designed an evaluation tool, delivered the evaluation, analysed the data and presented it to the V&A upon completion. The whole experience was extremely interesting, useful and rewarding. This is because my aspirations were heard by the module leader and fulfilled by allocating me to an institution that allowed me to implement my ideas in a real life project.

The evaluation tool that I designed is being used during May half term at UCL

Overall, this year enriched me. By engaging with museums first-hand, I was able to contribute my knowledge and skills, all the while challenging myself and learning from my experiences. This rewarding exchange wouldn’t have been possible without Caroline and her splendid work.

Kate is a special projects trainee, BBC and works for the British Embassy, Russia