Museums and Museum Studies in Colombia
When I tell people that I teach museum studies in Bogotá, Colombia, they usually ask two questions: “Isn’t that a dangerous place?” and “How did you get the job?” The answer to the first question is no, Colombia is not really more dangerous than any other place as long as you pay attention to your surroundings. The answer to the second question is a little more complicated.
The program I teach in is the Maestría en Museología y Gestión del Patrimonio (Masters in Museology and Patrimony Management) at the Universidad Nacional (National University). The university was founded in 1867, and now has six satellite campuses, 3,000 professors, 38,000 undergraduate students, and 8,000 graduate students in 430 academic programs (134 master’s programs and 51 doctoral programs). The museum studies degree was started in 2005 because there were few opportuinities for museum training in the country despite a 150-year-long museum tradition, and a growing need for professional museum staff (a recent count listed 468 museums in Colombia). Because I had taught collection care workshops in Latin America for many years, I was asked to review the original program proposal, and later invited to serve as a profesor invitado (visiting professor).
The principal faculty members responsible for designing and inaugurating the museum studies program are Dr. Marta Combariza, an artist and professor in the Escuela de Artes Plásticas (School of Fine Arts); Dr. Edmon Castell, a museologist from Barcelona who is a professor in the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas (Institute of Aesthetic Research); and Dr.William López, an art historian and also a professor in the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas.
Museums in Colombia range from the traditional Museo Nacional (which exhibits prehistory, history, art, and culture of the country) to museums of colonial art, modern art, money, children’s museums, and most recently, a mobile museum in a trailer that can be moved anywhere you like. The younger generation of museum professionals emphasize the social role of museums as institutions that can offer diverse interpretations of cultures, empower communities, educate the public, and address important social issues. A good exampole of the latter is the peace process now underway with FARC guerilla forces that has resulted in the establishment of several museums devoted to memory, peace, and reconcilition
The museum studies program is a two-year master’s degree program, structured in accordance with general recommendations from ICOM (the International Council of Museums), and based on programs in Europe and the Americas. It has a strong interdisciplinary base with an emphasis on critical theory and the importance of research. Students enroll for four academic semesters that run 16 weeks each. A total of 54 credits are required for a diploma. Classes are taught on an intensive schedule―Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 7:00 am to 10:00 am and on Saturdays from 8:00 am to 11:00 am for two or three weeks each (this leaves time for the students to work, as almost all of them have full-time or part-time jobs).
Admission to the program is very competitive. A new cohort of students is recruited every two years, and they form a group that takes most of their classes together for the next four semesters. The schedule of classes is as follows:
*Students must select a minimum of 8 credits among these electives
The Final Project is what really sets the program apart. It consists of four parts which are written up and submitted as a single thesis: (1) la estancia (a supervised internship); (2) la práctica (a practical museum project); (3) el trabajo colaborativo (a collaborative project with at least one other student); and (4) el trabajo de orden conceptual (a project involving research in some area of museology). Each student selects a faculty member to serve as their director de tesis (thesis director) who acts as advisor and critiques their thesis before it is submitted to the examining committee. The completed thesis may be anywhere from about 75 to more than 200 pages long.
During the years I have been associated with the program, I have served as director de tesis for five students. Their final projects varied widely, and included developing a plan to convert a 1920s waterworks plant into an ecology museum, redesigning an anatomy museum in a medical school, examining educational activities in an entomological museum, writing a detailed history of a university-based natural history museum, and a study of a mold infestation in a photographic collection. Although most students do all of their projects within Colombia, not all do—one of my students spent a semester working in a conservation lab in Turkey.
I have worked and traveled in Latin America since 1971. For decades the students and professors I met were limited in their ability to access information in books and journals. Printed materials in Latin America are very expensive, and usually difficult to obtain, particularly scholarly materials from Europe and North America. The internet has changed all that. Scholars in most Latin American universities now have access to a world of information that was undreamed of just 20 years ago. Although only a few of my students in Colombia speak English, almost all can read it reasonably well and they tend to be well-acquainted with museum studies on the international level. For example, I was quite surprised to discover that the first-year students were already well-grounded in the concepts of musealization and musealia.
It has been extremely rewarding to work extensively with students and faculty in a foreign country. In many ways, the
students are much the same as those I encounter at Kent State and other places in the U.S., but of course there are language and cultural differences. The students I have had in my classes in Colombia are easily the equal of those in graduate programs in the United States, and they work extraordinarily hard. I teach my classes in Spanish―or at least something close to it (the students make a game of correcting my grammatical mistakes in class)―so the language and cultural differences are a factor for them, too, but we manage to communicate. It has been a great pleasure to see students I have worked with graduate and move into positions of responsibility in museums in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America.
Working regularly in an academic environment in a foreign country is an enlightening experience that I highly recommend. The faculty members I work with are outstanding, and the fact that most of them are involved in museological research of one sort or another brings an added dimension to our association. Almost every time I go to Colombia to teach I am asked to present an extra seminar or lecture, or talk to a fellow faculty member’s class, which I am happy to do, because sharing ideas is the very heart of scholarly work. My wife (Julianne Snider) has accompanied me to Colombia twice to teach a course in scientific illustration, which has allowed us to co-present two seminars on our work on the intersections of art and science. Over the years I have made some very close friends in Colombia and developed a deep appreciation for the opportunity to work there. Participating in life in a foreign country gives one a much better understanding and respect for one’s own country as well.
For more information about museums and museum studies in Colombia:
The Maestría en Museología y Gestión del Patrimonio web page:
The Maestría en Museología y Gestión del Patrimonio Facebook page:
The university radio station (Radio Universidad Nacional) produces two regular radio programs about museums and museum studies that are available live or in archive format via the internet:
Museos en Contexto (Museums in Context):
Museos en Vivo (Museums Live):
Combariza, Marta, William López, and Edmon Castell. 2014. Museos y Museologías en Colombia: Retos y Perspectivas. Cuadernos de Museología, Dirección de Museos y Patrimonio Cultural, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá, 51 pp. Available as a free download from: