This is the first interview for the University of Kansas’ Museum Studies program. This alumnus graduated in 2014. She currently works as the Curator of Educational Programs at a Historical Society. Thank you, Kelsey, for answering these questions!
Why did you choose the University of Kansas?
When looking for Museum Studies programs, I was looking for a school in the Midwest or near my home state of Texas. I only applied to two schools, KU and Baylor, but chose KU because of the cost and program offered. KU was also close to my undergrad and to family, plus the campus is gorgeous and hilly!
What was your favorite class and/or professor and why?
When I first started the program I thought my path was collections (I think most of my peers did too), but after a summer internship and a course in museum public education, taught by Mary Madden, it really changed my perspective of museums. The education course was a nice balance of theory and application. We studied various learning theories, created museum-based lesson plans, and as a class, we planned a public program for a local museum that was a huge hit!
I also enjoyed the course of audience development, which was something my peers and I requested (i.e begged for). In this course, taught by Steve Nowak, we focused primarily on evaluation, and how to get the audience you want for your institution. We designed and implemented surveys, led focus groups, and studied visitors touring the museum, to learn more about how to reach our audience, undergraduates with an interest in history. I think this was a real eye-opening experience and something I’ve taken with me to my current position. Programs, exhibits, tours, etc. are not going to be successful unless you take the time to think about your audience, and their wants and needs.
Is that normal for course offerings to change based on the interests of the students?
The MUSE program has a Special Topics course offering, and our audience development course fell under that. Since many of us were interested in the course and we convinced one of our instructors to cover it. They offered it on a first-come, first-serve basis, but it did end up being a fairly big class (~11 students). KU also offers an Advanced Study course for students that want to explore a specialized topic more in-depth. There are several opportunities to tailor your coursework to fit your interests.
What were particular skills taught in the program?
The program offered a lot of hands-on experience. The instructors, many of whom are directors of museums in the area, utilized the nearby museums and their resources. Several of our classes were held off-campus at the museums. While we did focus on theory, we also applied what we learned to the “real world” by creating lesson plans, budget reports, conservation reports, exhibit designs, etc. for museums and institutions. It helped that our instructors were open and honest with us. They made it clear that while working in a museum can be fun and rewarding, it’s not always so glamorous, and you will most definitely “wear many hats” during your career.
Did you complete a capstone project? If so, what was your topic?
While I was in the program at KU, our director changed the program from the old track system to a more individualized plan. This individualized plan allows students to take courses in different fields allowing more flexibility and opportunity to take courses in other disciplines. Each member of my class presented a thesis based on a topic of their choosing. I wrote about public programming for individuals with memory loss. I researched programs already offered by museums across the country and examined what other types of programs existed for this population and how museums can incorporate these methods into their programming.
Where were you and your classmates in your career? Just out of undergrad, or coming from an entry-level museum position, or coming from outside of the field, etc.?
While in the program at KU, a majority of us came straight from undergrad.
Related, who would you recommend your program for? Any particular focus or for those interested in theory vs. application?
I recommend this program for those interested in application. The program offers many opportunities for hands-on learning.
Was housing provided for grad students or did you find your own housing and was it a challenge?
Housing was not provided. Since Lawrence is a college town, there are affordable apartments and rental houses all over town. My mom and I visited Lawrence a month before school started to find a place, and I ended up loving the apartment I chose. It was not very close to campus but the Park and Ride was located down the street and I used that to get to campus during the day.
Did you or any of your peers work while pursuing their degree?
Many of the people in the program found opportunities to intern and/or work at various museums and libraries on campus and in the area, in addition to the coursework provided by the program. I worked in the museum studies department office, so I answered any questions for potential students and worked closely with the program director.
Any other insider information you would like to provide about your program or university?
The University of Kansas has a great campus and a lot of school spirit! Even as a grad student, I was able to invest in school spirit by watching KU basketball games at Allen Fieldhouse or at the bars on Mass Street. If you’re not a sports fan, don’t worry! Downtown Lawrence has a great selection of bars, restaurants and coffee shops, many frequented by graduate students. On and off campus there are opportunities to meet other graduate students in different fields through meet-up groups and mixers. Lawrence also has a nice selection of walking and hiking trails, including Clinton Lake. Also in the fall, I recommend going to the Maple Leaf Festival in Baldwin City and taking frequent trips to Kansas City, MO to check out museums and shopping.
One thing I forgot to mention is the Museum Student Organization (MSO)! MSO is a great opportunity to get involved with the program and discuss museum topics outside of class and go on field trips to awesome museums! One of the highlights for me was our trip to the Kansas Underground Salt Museum in Hutchinson.
Any advice for those looking into graduate school and beginning a career in museums?
I highly recommend investing in a museum studies program that offers experience as well as theory. When museums are hiring, they look for experience. I think museum studies programs offer that extra step in preparing for a career in the field. As a museum studies student, you gain insight into the field through practice, research, and exposure to resources to expand your toolkit, as well as a team of mentors and peers to help guide you. I still keep in touch with most of my peers from the program and it’s been wonderful to have a group of people outside of my institution to share ideas with.