Teaching Digital Literacy in UK Museum Studies Programmes

  • Maria Paula Arias

When the call for proposals for the MCN20 conference was published earlier this year, I was merely four weeks into a government mandated lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As I was growing increasingly anxious about my own academic progress as a PhD candidate, I was also growing increasingly concerned about the impact the pandemic was having on the museum sector and academia alike. Job prospects were not looking good. At this time however, I also had a privileged position at the University of Manchester, where I was teaching Arts Gallery and Museum Studies MA students to think critically about “digital” as part of an optional module titled Digital Heritage.

To cope with my anxieties I decided to focus on my role as student and teacher as a way to assess the pedagogy of post-graduate museum studies programmes. Specifically, I was concerned with the way the pandemic obligated museums and galleries to prioritize their digital spaces, relationships, and operations. I questioned whether the current academic curricula provided students the digital skills and confidence to become future-forward practitioners. I confided in my friend and colleague Dr. Sarah Feinstein (Teaching Fellow at the University of Leeds) who shared similar anxieties; together we decided to take this line of inquiry forward, which resulted in the article you’re reading now and a Deep Dive session at the MCN2020 Conference.

Although this article and Deep Dive session share the same “origin story,” both outcomes have a different emphasis. The session aimed to provide a space to reexamine the existing relationship between academia and GLAM institutions for a more sustainable practice-led partnership. The article, however, aims to explore the responsibilities of UK museum studies courses in defining and teaching digital literacy to emerging GLAM professionals. As digital skills are becoming more embedded in day-to-day practice, and as cultural institutions continue to require post-secondary degrees for entry level staff members—I question whether the current museum studies curricula are meeting these demands.

To meet these aims I decided to collect two types of data: (1) a list of current museum studies programs in the United Kingdom and (2) two semi-structured interviews with faculty members at the University of Leicester and the University of Manchester. This data enabled me to understand what these programs offer students (as advertised online) and how particular universities make decisions about the structure of them. My hypothesis is that digital literacy is not clearly identified in academic courses and skills that are taught are difficult to translate in practice, thereby creating a learning gap that needs to be filled either on the job or by other means.

Although it is out of scope for this article, I argue that this research could be used to provide context in discussions about the value of museum studies programs and their role as advocates for the need to have digital literacy across cultural organisations (from volunteers to management). In this sense, this article follows previous studies that explored the development of museum studies as a discipline and its interdependence with the redefinitions of the museum (see for example Teather 1991; Lorente 2012; Welsh 2013). Particularly, it follows the calls for an interrelated community of practice that “moves beyond definitions based on specific tasks carried out within the museum walls” (Macleod 2011, p. 54), and instead advocates for a more transparent relationship between museum studies programs, museum practice, and digital literacy.

Digital Literacy as Concept and Context

In 2017, the One by One project launched in the United Kingdom with the aim to “build digitally confident museums” by helping these cultural institutions “define, improve, measure, and embed” digital literacy among their staff and volunteers (One by One n.d.). In their first phase of the project, the authors found that “digital” is becoming professionalized and institutionalized within the UK museum sector, which creates a demand for new digital skills among all roles throughout these cultural institutions (Barnes et al. 2018).

In this sense, “digital” is becoming more strategic, organizationally distributed, and part of decision-making processes, as a result of museums’ symbiotic relationships with their audiences’ needs, technological developments, and economic frameworks. Despite the increasing demand for specific digital skills and broader digital literacy in the museum sector, the authors found that these “skills are not in ready supply throughout the workforce” (Barnes et al. 2018, p. 22) and that training and skill development “tends to be on an ad hoc basis” (Barnes et al. 2018, p. 26). These results highlight museums’ needs to build and maintain a workforce that is digitally literate.

The Character Matters report points to another corresponding gap in the development and supply of tools for learning digital skills and competencies through surveying museum advertisements to understand what qualities and qualifications such institutions require (BOP Consulting 2016). The report found that the majority (79%) of these advertisements listed a higher education degree (from undergraduate to graduate) as a “basic requirement” for new recruits (BOP Consulting 2016, p. 19). Although this report did not disaggregate the types or titles of degrees listed, it can be assumed that these degrees include museum studies and other related programs.

The trends described by ObO and Character Matters reports, suggest that post-graduate degrees such as museum studies programs, as well as digital skills and competencies, are valued highly in museum recruitment processes. These trends, therefore, raise a question about the role (and responsibility) of these post-graduate programs in supplying and developing the digital skills, literacy, and confidence that museums are increasingly demanding from their staff. In other words, these reports raise a question about the value of museum studies programs to their communities of practice (Macleod 2011). To this end, this article aims to explore the relationships between museum studies curricula and the museum sector regarding the supply and demand of digital literacy.

Jisc defines digital literacy as “capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning, and working in a digital society. Digital literacy looks beyond functional IT skills to describe a richer set of digital behaviours, practices, and identities” (2018, online). In this definition, digital literacies are supported by changing technologies, as such they are part of a developmental process that adapts not only to newly purposeful tools but also to organizational structures and needs. To this end, a skills ecosystem operates to contextualize the development and maintenance of digital skills which impact the deployment, demand, and supply within a specific setting—such as an institution, a sector or discipline, or a national economy (Barnes et al. 2018, p. 8). The use of the skills ecosystem model to map and understand how digital skills are deployed, demanded, supplied, and developed in the museum sector in examples such as ObO, demonstrate the value for both the wider cultural sector and higher education.

Here I focus on the supply and development aspects of the skills ecosystem to explore the potential role of post-graduate programs (such as MA courses in museum studies) for emerging museum practitioners. Although these programs do not help fix museums’ systemic digital challenges (such as resource allocation, division of labor, or organizational structuring) nor alleviate issues of accessibility and equity, they can help students approach these institutions in a critical manner so as to help them “recognize the opportunities digital offers” (Barnes et al. 2018, p. 37). To examine this, I used a mixed-method approach to collect and analyze data, including information collected from university websites and through semi-structured interviews. In the first instance, I created an archive of UK museum studies programs and searched their online descriptions for any mentions of how they supply their students with “digital literacy” or “digital skills.” The second type of data includes interviews with two faculty members in different institutions. These individuals were selected because of their listed positions within their universities, which led me to assume that they are in decision-making roles and therefore, have the capacity to influence how their programs approach digital literacy (if at all).

Digital Literacy Provision in UK Higher Education

The focus of my desktop research into UK museum studies programs includes 37 unique ones, primarily taught in England. The majority of these are MA degree programs (see Figure 1), and their titles vary in specificity. For example, some included variations of “Museum Studies” (such as “Museum and Artifact Studies”); whereas others were more nuanced, such as “Visual, Material, and Museum Anthropology.”

Expand Expand Figure 1 Types of Degree [n=37]

I then searched each program website for the following relevant keywords: “digital” and “technology/ies.” This search yielded a subset of the overall dataset (64.86%), where 24 program websites featured one of these keywords. I wanted to understand better how these keywords were used, for example to describe the overall aims of the program, or whether they were used in the title or descriptions of particular courses. From this subset, 6 programs had a course that used a keyword in its title (which varied from “Curating Science & Technology” to “Digital Heritage”), and 18 used composites of these keywords within their descriptions of the overall program or specific courses (such as “digital media,” “digital research methods,” “digital resources”). Interestingly, all of the courses that used these keywords (either in the title and/or the description) were listed as optional courses to complete the degree. For example, the University of Leicester and the University of Manchester each offer an optional module where the emphasis is on digital media within museum contexts. Whereas Leicester’s module is titled “Digital,” Manchester’s module is titled “Digital Heritage.”

Analyzing program and course descriptions, and whether or not they include relevant keywords, offers a limited perspective on how these academic degrees teach digital literacy (if at all). It is more challenging to understand how these programs go beyond functional skills to enable “a richer set of digital behaviours, practices, and identities” (Jisc 2018). To this end, I invited two academics to participate in semi-structured interviews. Their perspective provides an opportunity to understand how museum studies programs define and teach digital literacy, how these decisions are made, and how the decisions translate to their programs’ online presence.

Dr. Bergevin is the Programme Director for Socially Engaged Practice at the University of Leicester’s Department of Museum Studies. She is also a Teaching Fellow in Flexible Learning, which means that she is responsible for developing all distance learning programs for the department. Dr. Arvanitis is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Museology at University of Manchester and leader of the MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies (AGMS). He is also the principal lecturer in the program’s optional module Digital Heritage.

For Dr. Bergevin, digital literacy is not just the ability to use digital platforms and tools, but also “feeling confident in it” and being able to discern what tools to use for different kinds of tasks. Importantly, she also mentions that being digitally literate also means “knowing when you don’t need a digital solution.” She notes that in the flexible learning Museum Studies program, they offer an optional module called Digital that provides students with an overview of the way that technologies have been used in the museum sector. The module is also “imbued with design thinking and universal design theory” that culminates in a final assignment where students propose a “solution” to a set list of issues she collected from museum practitioners. Other than this optional module, Dr. Bergevin mentions that digital literacy is embedded in other modules such as Collections Care, where students are asked to “unpick” the platforms used to store collection information. Ultimately, for her, digital literacy is about “thinking through what are the implications when we use technology in certain ways.”

When Dr. Bergevin develops the Museum Studies MA, MSc in the flexible learning format (in a virtual learning environment), she collaborates with a range of academics to ensure that it provides the same curriculum as the on-campus program. She also collaborates with ‘sector-facing professionals’ (such as Museum Detox speakers) to ensure that the “sector is feeding” into the curriculum. This consultation process results in setting what “is core” for the program and therefore, what knowledge or competencies are prioritised. Although “digital literacy as a phrase” does not come up in these decision-making processes, Dr. Bergevin mentions how “digital” has been embedded throughout the program, across modules and ways of thinking, due to the heavy championing by Dr. Ross Parry (a leader on the ObO project as well as faculty in the Museology Department at Leicester).

Although digital literacy is “core but not explicit,” Dr. Bergevin described a module where sector professionals (ten museum activists) had a direct influence on the curriculum, by advocating for a more explicit link and learning outcome based on digital literacy. In this example, the professional panel helped develop a module titled Museums and Contemporary Issues with an emphasis on social media and its role in cultural institutions from activism to contemporary collecting practices. In the end, the module was created taking these recommendations into account, resulting in a curriculum that had not previously included an explicit link to digital literacy.

At the University of Manchester, Dr. Arvanitis defines digital literacy as “a set of knowledge [and] experiences around the use of digital technologies to solve problems in daily life.” Expanding on this definition, he makes a distinction between digital literacies that are “general” and those that are “contextualized within the cultural sector.” He mentions that in the AGMS program there is a history of teaching both types, however, more recently, he has placed an emphasis on “digital skills” in relation to the “topics and questions in AGMS as a museology course.” These “contextual” digital skills are primarily taught in an optional module titled Digital Heritage, which combines “knowledge areas that link to professional practice.” He describes how he has been building this module on a “triangular” framework of “knowledge, experience, and skills” in a way that aligns within the overall aims of the AGMS program to provide practice-based learning.

Dr. Arvanitis mentions that he also updates the Digital Heritage module for each new cohort by tracking “current discussions and debates and practices in the sector.” He considers the following question in this process: What is happening right now in the sector that the students who will graduate will most probably face as a topic of discussion in their future museum workplace? Lastly, he considers the practicalities of teaching this module such as guest speakers’ availabilities, access to existing labs or similar resources, and students’ existing skills and knowledge. In this sense, he is continuously developing this module on a framework that improves the digital competencies of students, while acknowledging the sector’s needs. Interestingly, he also notes how this module provides him an opportunity to learn alongside (as well as from) students on topics and on skills that he did not previously have.

The AGMS curriculum has a number of learning outcomes and, although digital literacy “is not used as a phrase,” Dr. Arvanitis describes how digital literacy is embedded in a number of these outcomes (for example under the headings of “knowledge” and “employability”). Despite this effort to add digital literacy throughout the program, Dr. Arvanitis adds that “in practice, digital literacy” needs to be structured more strategically across AGMS and within a range of core and optional modules. Part of this strategic approach would also address an issue that Dr. Arvanitis noted about the existing assumptions of small faculty teams, wherein specific topics are only going to be addressed by specific individuals. In this sense, Dr. Arvanitis feels that they are missing a more “subtle and sustained” approach to digital literacy than what is listed as part of the program specification (including its learning outcomes). Instead, a more transparent approach with “an increased baseline” for digital literacy throughout the program, would let students know they are gaining digital skills and knowledge at an equal level despite the modules they choose to take.

Although Dr. Arvanitis mentions that they strive to create links between core and optional modules, these links are not articulated in the way that the program is described or advertised online. So students seeking to learn more about how AGMS approaches digital literacy by visiting the University of Manchester website would not necessarily understand how the modules interrelate. In this sense, the department is “missing a trick,” as Dr. Arvanitis describes, where they need to create and publicize a thematic narrative that links different areas of practice and theory throughout their different modules.


My conversations with Dr. Bergevin and Dr. Arvanitis show that there are significant similarities between the two programs and their approaches to digital literacy. For example, both described how their programs are developed within an acknowledgment of the needs of the sectors, as well as with an aim to improve students’ digital competencies. Similarly, despite recognizing the importance of having a strategic and embedded approach to digital literacy throughout the programs, both admitted that this provision is concentrated in optional modules (Digital in Leicester and Digital Heritage in Manchester). These comments correlate to my earlier observation based on the descriptions provided by museum studies programs’ websites. These results suggest that it is not just the University of Manchester that is “missing a trick.” instead most museum studies academic programs seem to have a communication gap between their ideal approaches to digital literacy (embedded throughout) and the publicized curriculum (based on single optional modules).

Despite using different descriptions to define digital literacy, both participants allude to the definition used by the ObO project. On one hand, Dr. Bergevin aligns her definition to having confidence to make decisions, whereas Dr. Arvanitis aligns his definition to the ability to solve problems. Both definitions can be interpreted as “capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning, and working in a digital society” (Jisc, 2018). It could be said, therefore, that both participants have a clear understanding of what digital literacies are and how these are supplied and developed as part of the skills ecosystem to which their academic institutions belong. Furthermore, by making efforts to reflect the sectors’ needs—for example by collaborating with professionals and inviting guest speakers to fill knowledge gaps—both programs seem to be making headway to meet the “digital” needs of museums and their practitioners. What is unclear, however, is whether Dr. Bergevin and Dr. Arvanitis’ colleagues share their definitions and therefore their approaches to digital literacy within their own modules (outside of the digital-specific and optional ones). I argue that their next program-development meetings need to include an internal audit to explore the potential different definitions among colleagues who inevitably influence their approaches to teaching digital literacy across modules.

What this data suggests is that on one hand digital literacy is clearly identified by my participants, thereby giving the illusion that their colleagues may share their definitions. On the other hand, digital literacy is not articulated outside specific modules, so efforts to translate these competencies elsewhere are muddled. How digital literacies are introduced throughout the programs is not clearly identified, therefore creating a perspective that the efforts to teach digital literacy are stunted within optional modules. I argue that this lack of clarity is also responsible for a lack of publicized information on university websites, therefore further problematizing how these competencies are translated to the wider public (let alone prospective students or potential institutional partners).

Another potential fallout from this lack of transparency, is the inability to describe digital literacies as a recent graduate when applying for professional posts. This last point, however, is difficult to justify given the scope of this article. I propose, however, that one area of future research could be an audit of recent museum studies graduates to understand their definitions of digital literacy and whether or not they were able to gain these competencies through their academic degrees.

Because of the interrelated nature of museum studies programs, museum practice, and digital literacy—I argue that another area for further research is to audit how digital literacy is defined within museum practice and, specifically, how it is advertised in job postings. A gap of understanding within museum studies programs could have relational effect within the community of practice (Macleod 2011) at institutional levels (for example, how to advertise for and hire digitally literate recent grads), as well as in the perceived value (and responsibility) of these higher education programs in supplying and developing the digital skills, literacy, and confidence that museums are increasingly demanding from their staff.

Identifying these areas of future research follows my earlier argument to suggest that the research I present here could be used as an entry point to discussions around the value of museum studies programs—particularly, about their role to advocate and provide digital literacy to upcoming (as well as existing) museum practitioners. Although this paper does not aim to qualify this value, nor to be used as a personal opinion piece, one last area of future work would be a public forum where academics and practitioners may reflect on their experiences and perceptions of the value of museum studies programs. For me, this would be a welcome opportunity to reflect on my privilege as a museum studies student, and to turn a critical eye on my pedagogy as an aspiring museum studies academic.

About the Author

  • Maria Paula Arias

    Maria Paula Arias (she/her) is an early career researcher interested in how museums and galleries use social media. Particularly in the ways social media platforms and their audiences are valued and, therefore, what their relationships are with the brands of such cultural institutions., and the sociological approaches to museology and digital humanities . She’s a proponent for the use of creative methodologies and mixed-methods, as well as an advocate for the mindful and ethical use of digital media in museological research. Her Twitter handle is @ariasmariap.

Appendix: Interview Questions

  • How do you define digital literacy?
  • How does the museum studies program teach digital literacy?
  • How are priorities set for teaching digital literacy in this program? If a program does focus on digital literacy, is that due to a larger university mandate to improve the digital competencies of students, or does it arise out of a program’s acknowledgment of the sector’s needs.
  • To what extent does your program reflect the sector’s needs for digital literacy in their hiring pools?
  • What is a sector need, in relation to digital literacy, that your program does not currently address?
  • What is the process like from deciding what the curriculum will look like, to what is shared online on the program’s website?


  1. The session was titled and it aimed to be a transparent discussion about the successes and failures of museum studies curricula in relation to the digital literacy needs within the sector.
  2. Galleries, libraries, archives, and museums
  3. Lorente, J-P. 2012. “The Development of Museum Studies in Universities: From Technical Training to Critical Museology.” Museum Management and Curatorship 27(3): 237–52.

    Teather, J. Lynne. 1991. “Museum Studies: Reflecting on Reflective Practice.” Museum Management and Curatorship 10(4): 403–17.

    Welsh, P. H. 2013. “Preparing a New Generation: Thoughts on Contemporary Museum Studies Training.” Museum Management and Curatorship 28 (5): 436–54.
  4. Macleod, S. 2001. “Making Museum Studies: Training, Education, Research and Practice.” Museum Management and Curatorship 19(1): 51–61. https://doi.org/10.1080/09647770100501901
  5. Hereafter ObO.
  6. One by One. n.d. “About.” One by One. https://one-by-one.uk/whats-it-about/
  7. Barnes, S-A., Kispeter, E., Eikhof, D. R., and Parry, R. 2018. “Mapping the Museum Digital Skills Ecosystem.” University of Leicester. https://one-by-one.uk/2018/03/23/phase-1-findings/
  8. BOP Consulting. 2016. “Character Matters: Attitudes, Behaviours, and Skills in the UK Museum Workforce.” https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Character_Matters_UK_Museum_Workforce_full_report.pdf
  9. Jisc. 2018. “Developing Digital Literacies.” https://one-by-one.uk/2018/03/23/phase-1-findings/
  10. See the Appendix for interview questions.
  11. Hereafter, AGMS
  12. See museumdetox.org


Barnes, S-A., Kispeter, E., Eikhof, D. R., and Parry, R. 2018. “Mapping the Museum Digital Skills Ecosystem.” University of Leicester. https://one-by-one.uk/2018/03/23/phase-1-findings/

BOP Consulting. 2016. “Character Matters: Attitudes, Behaviours and Skills in the UK Museum Workforce.” https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Character_Matters_UK_Museum_Workforce_full_report.pdf

Jisc. 2018. “Developing Digital Literacies.” https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/developing-digital-literacies

Lorente, J-P. 2012. “The Development of Museum Studies in Universities: From Technical Training to Critical Museology.” Museum Management and Curatorship 27(3): 237–52.

Macleod, Su. 2001. “Making Museum Studies: Training, Education, Research and Practice.” Museum Management and Curatorship 19(1): 51–61.

One by One. n.d. “About.” https://one-by-one.uk/whats-it-about/

Teather, J. L. 1991. “Museum Studies: Reflecting on Reflective Practice.” Museum Management and Curatorship 10(4): 403–17.

Welsh, P. H. 2013. “Preparing a New Generation: Thoughts on Contemporary Museum Studies Training.” Museum Management and Curatorship 28(5): 436–54.