The 2002 Conference

The UMAC 2002 Conference was held in Sydney and Canberra in Australia from Sunday 29 September - Friday 4 October 2002.

The title and theme of the conference was: Exposing and Exploiting the Distinct Character of University Museums and Collections.

Poster: Macquarie University's undergraduate degree in Museum Studies

Andrew Simpson (1) & Ruth Mawson (2)
(1) Division of Environmental and Life Sciences, Macquarie University NSW 2109 AUSTRALIA
(2) Centre for Ecostratigraphy and Palaeobiology, Macquarie University NSW 2109 AUSTRALIA

In 2002, Macquarie University introduced a 4-year program of study leading to a BSc with BA in Natural History, Culture and Museum Studies. The double degree program covers specialty areas of particular interest to most national, state and regional museums and for which Macquarie has a high reputation namely: Australian history, ancient history, archaeology, palaeontology, biology, geology, early childhood studies, heritage and indigenous studies. This interdisciplinary degree is designed to: a) provide students with a modern background for the field of Museum Studies, b) allow students to qualify with coherencies (majors) in at least three segments of study, and c) allow students to develop strong generic skills in information management.

Most of the University's museums are involved in the delivery of the degree program. This creates opportunities for students to experience practical museum-based projects. The development of this undergraduate degree program also enables the University to more effectively engage its museums with its academic mission and more effectively encourage its museum staff to strive for appropriate standards of professionalism.


Museums traditionally recruit staff from certain discipline areas commensurate with the museums collection subject areas and philosophy. The start of a museum career will often stem from either an Arts or Science Bachelors Degree. Museum careers, however, as they unfold may take staff a great distance from this initial degree.

Macquarie University therefore saw an opportunity to use existing academic strengths and structure a double degree program utilising a blend of Arts and Science study coherencies (major areas of study) with a core component of museology. The core units Courses) also contain a strong component of information management. This is an important generic skill for the knowledge economy and combined with the liberal education mix of arts and science, equips students well for a range of future work place scenarios.

Macquarie University is the first university in Australia to offer such an undergraduate program. With the introduction of up-front fees for coursework Master of Science programs and Diplomas, the few programs of study in Museum Studies available throughout Australia are thus constrained. This BSc with BA program may well be contemplated as an alternative to portion of the postgraduate programs already available elsewhere in Australia.

Most of the program's coherencies (majors) are offered externally. The whole degree, therefore, can be attempted by interested people from any part of Australia. Of course some units (subjects) require on-campus sessions especially those requiring hands on experience. This mode of flexible delivery makes the program attractive to many who are already working or volunteering in the museums sector, particularly in rural and regional Australia.

It is also possible to enrol in single units within the program. Of particular interest to people already involved in museum work (volunteer or a full-time or part-time employee) are two units ELS202 Information Management and Museums Practice and HIST309 History, Culture and Museums Studies: Sources and Skills. These units introduce students to information technology management issues in the twenty-first century. These issues are applied through a focus on the knowledge of the science and technology utilised by museums. The units also explore ethical, legal, aesthetic and economic issues of relevance to museum collection management and associated museum programs and provide practical museum experience.

For those who have already successfully completed degree in a museums-oriented field of study (e.g. those listed) and who would normally qualify to undertake an Honours program, an Honours program in Museums Studies is also offered.

Structure of Degree Program

To qualify for a BSc with BA in Natural History, Culture and Museum Studies, students must include in their program a number of common core units:

  • A 100-level (first year) computing unit
  • ELS202 Information Management and Museums Practice
  • HIST309 History, Culture and Museums Studies: Sources and Skills

Students must complete a coherency (major) in Palaeontology (Science) plus two more of the listed coherencies; at least one of which must be an Arts coherency (i.e. students may additionally choose 2 Arts coherencies, or one Arts and one Science coherency.

A linkage between the Arts and Sciences is particularly attractive to a large number of mature age clientele who are keen to advance their knowledge and skills in the natural histories and cultural studies.

The coherencies as suggested should give an "edge" to a large number of students seeking employment in an ever-shrinking job market. Many students, are not sure even when they begin university if they should pursue an arts or science-based career. By offering a combined degree, they will have the opportunity of combining both and will leave university with 3 coherencies.

Arts coherencies Science coherencies
Ancient Mediterranean Cultures Palaeontology
Australian History Biology
Indigenous Studies Geology
Environmental and Cultural Geography
Early Childhood Education

Other coherencies for the program are presently under negotiation.

As students will graduate with a BSc with BA, the University Admission Index required should be the same as for an Arts or Science degree (whichever is the higher).

Students need not have studied specific units at school prior to enrolment. Basic computer literacy can be achieved in the first year of study. When choosing a coherency in Biology for example, students are required to take general first-year subjects in Biology and it is recommended that basic Chemistry be completed at first-year level (this unit assumes no Chemistry at HSC level). Students who haven't sat the HSC you may apply to Macquarie's Jubilee Scheme for special entry. The Jubilee Scheme was established in 1992 to mark the Silver Jubilee of Macquarie University. The Scheme provides entrance to the University for selected students aged over 25 years who wish to enrol. Students may also enrol in a single unit (termed a non-award unit). Those who already have a museum background or some museum experience without a Higher School Certificate can make a special case to apply.

Potential student clientele are informed that that the degree is not just for those who are interested only in museum studies. They are informed that the program provides a broad-based degree enabling students to seek employment in a number of fields. Likewise, a student with such a qualification would indicate to potential employers that they are more broadly educated than students with either a BSc or a BA. Possible avenues of employment include public relations, national parks, conservation management, education, scientific research organisations, libraries, journalism, broadcasting, aboriginal agencies, tourism and recreation planning, and environmental activities.

Many museums globally (at a national, state and regional level) use palaeontology as one of their principal draw-cards. Palaeontology has ties to the arts via archaeology. It therefore is appropriate that the palaeontology/palaeobiology strand is compulsory and the program is co-ordinated by scientific staff in conjunction with a Committee made up of a representative from each of the strands offered. It is thus differentiated from most other Museum Studies programs as these are commonly aligned with Arts Faculties. Curators and Museums Officers from the University's own Museums play a fundamental part in the delivery of the program and associated quality control of the learning experiences.

It has been evident in recent years that the number of museums has been increasing. Even in 1998, 276 Australian university museums and collections were in existence (Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, 1998). Regional museums have been springing up in many areas and, as a consequence of country centres feeling economic hardships, are being used as a resource as the country areas attempt to "re-invent" themselves. With this in mind, some of the strands will be available in the external mode. The program will also be marketed to developing nations, especially those who are trying to preserve the record of ever-changing cultures.

Integration with University facilities

One of the corner-stones of the program is to prepare students for employment in the museum sector. Students are introduced to the use of information technology to store images of museum specimens whether they be fossil, extant biologic materials, aboriginal artefacts, pottery or art. This is done by using the University's recently acquired AdLib system, a museum information management system covering all collections on campus. This is augmented by use of technology developed at Macquarie in the Centre of Biodiversity and Bioresources (BioTrack) a specialised system for compiling extensive biodiversity data. Students are introduced to both systems in the core 2nd year unit ELS 202 Information Management and Museums Practice.

Specimens, often millions of them, in museums worldwide are generally maintained as collections of ‘real' specimens that are costly to maintain, curate and make accessible and hence the use of the irreplaceable wealth of knowledge they contain for research, teaching and keeping of cultural records is declining dramatically. This is especially so in third world countries and countries of the former Soviet Union. An important aspect of our degree is to initiate a revolution in these specimen-based disciplines by creating ‘virtual' collections that have many pedagogical advantages, not least of which is the integration of information technology with the particular discipline in question.

The compulsory 2nd year unit ELS202 aims to broaden student understanding of the roles, responsibilities and function of museums. The unit also introduces students to museology, the way information is managed in a museum context, and various aspects of modern museum practice. The unit is also designed to heighten appreciation of these facilities. Core subject areas covered in an introductory form are listed below:

  • Preventative conservation
  • Exhibition design
  • Database manipulation
  • Curatorial practice
  • Public programs
  • The digital museum world
  • Copyright issues

The delivery of the unit is strongly reliant on campus museums. The unit components including lectures, tutorials, workshops, site visits and specific project work is coordinated by a team of staff and involves the staff of many campus museums in delivering aspects of the unit. This effectively integrates Macquarie University's campus museums into the academic mission of the institution. Staff working in these facilities are therefore given the opportunity to share their combined knowledge and experience with the student body. Some examples are given below.

  • The University's Museums and Heritage Officer is involved in the delivery of introductory lectures.
  • The Biological Sciences Museum and the Museum of Ancient Cultures are visited to compare and contrast the way information is presented in exhibitions.
  • The Museum of Ancient Cultures runs a practical session on the correct method of handling artefacts.
  • The University's part-time conservator runs a practical session on preventative conservation.
  • The Biological Sciences Museum, Earth Sciences Museum, the Australian History Museum and the Museum of Ancient Cultures education programs are analysed.
  • The University Library delivers a practical session on generic research skills.
  • The University's Copyright Officer delivers the component on copyright issues in museums and lectures on information management.
  • Students complete a major assignment involving the accessioning of collection data into the University's Museum Information Management System.
  • The Curator of the Lachlan Macquarie Room delivers a lecture and practical session on digital exhibition spaces.

The Museums at Macquarie are active participants in the cultural life of the campus. During the delivery of the unit there are plenty of informal learning opportunities for internal students through Macquarie's Museums. These consist of opening functions, seminars, guest lecturers and off-campus excursions. Students are welcome to participate in these on a voluntary basis and students are encouraged to engage with the campus museums in various voluntary capacities.

Students are also encouraged to become actively engaged in many off-campus museum activities. Those seriously considering a museum career are urged to consider membership of a range of professional groups such as ICOM and Museums Australia. When the ELS 202 unit was offered for the first time in 2002 the following voluntary activities both on and off campus were offered. There was a sustained interest in these by enrolled students.

  • Floor talks on the "Palaeographia" Exhibition – University Art Gallery
  • Opening of the "Yumi Yet" Exhibition – University Art Gallery
  • Opening of the "Errol Davis Retrospective" – University Art Gallery
  • Behind the scenes tour – Australian Museum
  • Behind the scenes tour – Sydney Aquarium
  • Discussion on the links between Art and Science – Museum of Contemporary Art
  • "Art on the run", Photographic Exhibition opening – E6A
  • Archaeological dig, call for volunteers on the site of a colonial era dwelling - Liverpool
  • "Why Learning seminar" – Australian Museum
  • "Exposing Access Expo and Seminar" – Powerhouse Museum
  • Opening of student exhibition "Galipolli: Then and Now" – Macquarie University Library (exhibition by enrolled ELS202 student).

One interesting but unexpected outcome of utilising live local museums as part of the unit for the tutorial/practical sessions provided the following unintended learning experiences for students.

  • A visit to one museum on campus coincided with an evacuation drill.
  • A visit to one museum on campus coincided with a school visit where 28 students were anticipated but 61 arrived.
  • A visit to an Art Gallery coincided with the arrival of documentation concerning an ongoing collaborative project. The Education Officer who received the documentation launched into an impromptu, but illuminating, lecture on the unsatisfactory nature of the documentation and the pitfalls of collaborative enterprises between different organisations with different agendas.
  • Students completing an exercise on the presentation of information in shop windows in a public space were questioned by some shop managers. Most were helpful and welcomed the student interest. One shop manager however claimed the content of their shop window was ‘copyright' and the students were not permitted by law to take notes, thus illustrating a public misconception about the nature of copyright.

An evaluation of students undertaking the new unit in 2002 was done. From the 21 respondents (enrolment of 27) four students reported they were seriously considering changing their career aspirations as a result of the unit. The multi-disciplinary perspective of the unit also received favourable comment from 3 students. Three students noted that they would recommend the unit to other students, one of these noted that the unit would be extremely beneficial to students enrolled in the Diploma of Education program. The convenor's contention that the unit has broad appeal across a range of disciplines beyond those enrolled in the double degree program is therefore supported. The remainder of positive comments noted that the unit had deepened interest in the subject matter and increased appreciation of the museum experience.

The compulsory 300 level unit HIST 309 History, Culture & Museum Studies: Sources and Skills is a modification of a pre-existing unit prior to the commencement of the degree program. This unit examines the evolution of the museum in society and encourages a critical understanding of its role in defining and shaping national and local perceptions of history and culture, with particular reference to Australia. The unit also offers a skills-based component that considers the use of alternative sources, especially the material evidence of the past.

Students proceeding to an Honours year are required to complete two projects, a research topic conducted in the Department of their choice, either History, Human Geography, Biology, Early Childhood Studies, or Earth and Planetary Sciences, and one other in conjunction with a museum (on campus or externally). This provides practical experience in researching and setting up of an exhibit on a chosen topic, or undertaking another museum specific project entailing considerable research and implementation. In addition, up to 8 credit points of relevant units can be completed. Students who have completed an appropriate BA or BSc undergraduate program of studies either at Macquarie or another university may enrol in the Honours year. One student, with a Bachelor of Arts, has completed the Honours year to date. Her project involved curating an exhibition entitled Gallipoli then and now. The changing image of Anzac.

Inviting students to participate in the cultural life of the University through museums-based coursework and project work as a result of the introduction of the new double degree program in Natural History, Culture and Museum Studies enlivens campus museums. In many universities campus museums are only perceived as relevant to the institution's outreach and recruitment strategies by acting as a shop-front for the campus and spaces for public interaction between the university and the community. Integrating these into a directly relevant teaching program extends their relevance to the host institution.

Australian Vice-Chancellor's Committee 1998. Transforming Cinderella Collections: The Management and Conservation of Australian University Museums, Collections and Herbaria. The Report of the DCA / AV-CC University Museums Project Committee, 1-331.