MA in Museum Anthropology

The MA in Museum Anthropology, offered jointly by the Columbia Department of Anthropology and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), is a degree for those already employed in, or interested in moving into, the museum world. The program combines the strengths of a premier academic department of anthropology and an innovative museum anthropology department whose collections and archives span the history and geographic range of the discipline. Students learn the practical skills entailed in working in museums and develop the strong theoretical perspectives essential to those who are using material culture to express ideas through visual display. The program prepares students to analyze and interpret ethnographic and archaeological collections; to work in registration or collections management; and to gain hands-on experience in museum exhibitions and aspects of administration and public outreach. Our graduates have been successful in becoming scientific, educational, or research curators in a wide range of museums in New York City and around the world.

In the Columbia/AMNH program, museum anthropology is the study of museum worlds from a critical anthropological perspective, focusing on their global history and changing roles in contemporary society. In the twenty-first century, museums have become increasingly contested places. In current decolonial/postcolonial discourse, there are many social, political, and economic challenges pertaining to the formation of new museums, and the reformulation of existing museums. These challenges require critical and careful consideration of many key issues in museum anthropology, such as cultural heritage, repatriation, race and gender identities, decolonization, the social significance of objects and their curation and display, and the effective communication of such debates—often through digital media—to the general public.

Students in the program have a unique opportunity to engage with these issues in a cutting edge anthropology department, and in dialogue with museum professionals who have deep experience exploring these questions in the creation of innovative public exhibits. As a part of this unique opportunity, the program requires students to devise and install a professional public museum exhibition each year.

Program Requirements

The MA in Museum Anthropology consists of 30 points of graduate-level coursework, including two museum internships and a thesis project. 18 of the 30 points must be taken in the Department of Anthropology. The remaining 12 points may be taken in other relevant departments, with each student devising a program suited to their own particular academic interests in consultation with their advisor(s).

A sample program is listed below.

 

  • ANTH GR5201 Principles and Application of Society and Culture. Fall term. 3 points. (for those without an anthropology background)
  • ANTH GR6352 Museum Anthropology: History and Theory. Fall term. 3 points
  • ANTH GR6353 Ethical Issues in Museums. Spring term. 3 points.
  • ANTH GR6192 Exhibition Practice in Global Context. Spring term. 3 points.

Each student in the program will complete two internships as part of the program, one in the spring term and one in the summer (or by arrangement), with one 6-point internship at one museum, or two 3-point internships at different museums. Each involves 120 hours of internship at the selected museum. Students are responsible for finding their own internships although faculty can make suggestions and give guidance.

During the internship the student will keep a journal of daily research and other activities, which is handed in at the end of the internship. A short paper (around six pages) is also required at the completion of each internship. The paper should be reflexive and critical, it should not simply repeat what is in the journal but should assess the internship experience in somewhat broader terms and make use of the literature read in courses during the year. The internship grade is given by the person who supervised the internship in consultation with Professor Boyd.

Among the museums at which internships have been conducted by previous students include the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tenement Museum, the Museo del Barrio, the National Museum for African Art, the Museum of Chinese in America, the Museum of the City of New York, the National Museum of the American Indian, New-York Historical Society, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and many others.

The thesis can be on any topic relating to the eclectic worlds of museum anthropology and museum studies. It should be an original piece of writing on a topic of the student’s choice. The topic is typically chosen after consultation with the student’s advisor, mentor and/or other faculty member with whom the student has discussed the project. Fieldwork may be involved, although this is not a requirement. 

Students work with their advisor to set up a schedule for thesis drafts, completion and approval. In the middle of the spring term, students submit a preliminary outline on their topic, with bibliographic references. After approval they will begin work on the thesis. It is assessed by two readers, Professor Boyd and a second reader chosen by the student in consultation. The thesis does not have a strict required length, but is generally between forty to sixty pages long.

Length of Program

Students may enroll on either a full- or part-time basis. Optimally, a full-time program consists of two semesters of coursework and a spring internship, followed by a second internship and the thesis project in the summer, with the MA degree awarded in October. For maximum flexibility, the program may also be completed on a part-time basis with varying levels of enrollment each semester and the degree completed in up to four years.

Apply

The Museum Anthropology program accepts only a small number of students each year. We look for a diverse group; an undergraduate anthropology or archaeology major is not required, but candidates who have had some museum experience may be given preference.

Admission standards and selection procedures are identical to those followed by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and require a statement of academic purpose, a writing sample (ten to fifteen pages), three letters of recommendation from academic and/or professional sources, and Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. A limited number of merit-based scholarships are available and awarded on a rolling basis. Early applications are given preference in awarding scholarships.

We admit students for the fall semester only, and all applications must be submitted by the application deadline. For more information, please see the GSAS MA Programs page.