Visual, Material & Museum Anthropology

MSc in Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology

MPhil in Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology


The MSc/MPhil programme in Visual, Material, and Museum Anthropology recognizes the intellectual and empirical links between these areas of anthropological enquiry. The degree combines the strengths of one of Britain’s most important departments of anthropology with one of the world’s great ethnographic museums, the Pitt Rivers Museum, whose collections include ethnographic and archaeological artefacts and ethnographic photographs from around the world.

Applicants for the MSc or MPhil who know that they intend to pursue a DPhil (PhD) in the School of Anthropology & Museum Ethnography, via a MSc + DPhil (1+3-year) route or MPhil + DPhil (2+2-year) route, are encouraged to indicate and elaborate this in their Statement of Purpose/Personal Statement, as this will allow them to be considered for funding awards at the time of application. For this purpose their personal statement may be up to four pages in length and should include a proposal outlining their intended Doctoral research.

Applicants should be reassured that if they are not at this stage clear about whether they wish to pursue DPhil research in the future this will not affect their likelihood of securing a place on an MSc or MPhil now, or of securing DPhil funding at a later date. Anybody who subsequently applies to continue to study for a DPhil (whether after MSc or MPhil) will be considered again for nomination to the award competitions at that time.

The degree programme in Visual, Material, and Museum Anthropology offers students the chance to explore some of the most exciting issues in anthropology today. The one year MSc and the two year MPhil degrees focus on current themes within museum anthropology, visual anthropology, and material culture theory, and examines how these areas of enquiry are transforming the discipline of anthropology itself.

The programme uses anthropological perspectives to develop a critical understanding of the creation, function, histories, politics, and contemporary meanings and practices surrounding material and visual culture in different cultural contexts. Topics studied include the production, circulation and consumption of objects and images; the representation of cultures in museum displays, public media, art museums, and other public venues; shifting relations between source communities and museums; problems of landscape, place, and space; art and aesthetics; visual anthropology and issues of representation, including photographic representation and the relationship between photography and anthropology; material culture and social theory, the cross-cultural circulation of objects in the global economy, notions of value and the loss of material form, objectification and consumption.

Teaching emphasizes theoretical and analytical perspectives rather than practical skills training, although some teaching is done with the Museum’s collections, on techniques of analysis and editing in visual anthropology, and on ethnographic methods to study material worlds outside the museum. Tutors on the course endeavor to offer volunteer placements within their own research projects when possible. These have ranged from to transcribing interviews with Indigenous research visitors to the PRM, assisting in source community research visits, cataloguing and scanning photographs and manuscripts, researching the Museum’s collections of objects and photographs, and conducting an ethnography of visitors of an exhibition curated by a member of staff.

The degree can be a bridge toward professional training for those wishing to enter a museum career, a step toward doctoral research and an academic career, or an opportunity for established professionals to spend time thinking about theoretical issues away from the demands of daily work. Previous graduates of the separate programmes have gone on to doctoral research and academic careers, as well as careers in museum curation, media project coordination, independent documentary production, and work with marketing and advertising agencies.

Students on the VMMA course may be able to do short volunteer placements with staff teaching on the degree and in the Pitt Rivers Museum to enhance their learning. Volunteer work undertaken for the PRM by VMMA students is considered to be part of their course. While no degree marks are given for this work (as with tutorial essays), such projects will contribute to students’ overall learning on the course, will enable students to explore applications of theoretical and methodological teaching, and may feed into assessed coursework as content. Volunteer placements are not formalized across the Museum, but will be offered to students as opportunities arise over the year.

As with all other taught-course degrees in the School there is a structured programme of lectures, classes, and tutorials from October to June in the first year, common to both the MSc and the MPhil, followed by individual study and the writing of a dissertation over the summer (MSc) or thesis preparation over the summer and thesis writing in the second year (MPhil). In addition to teaching provided specifically for the VMMA programme, students also attend lectures in social anthropology to link their work to broader trends in the discipline.

The MSc and first year of the MPhil are structured around teaching for four papers:

This paper consists of one essay of no more than 5,000 words. It focuses on topics such as visual culture (including photography, the internet, art and aesthetics); music and performance; museum ethics and relationships with 'source communities'; landscape and the built environment; dress and body modification; religion and ritual; mass production and trade; debates concerning tradition, modernity and authenticity; transnational cultural flows and the wider issues of cross-cultural investigation.

Students have a free choice from all of the option courses offered within the School; these include courses in regional anthropology (South Asia, Japan, West Africa, etc.), topics in anthropology (the anthropology of Art, Material Culture, etc), and topical issues (Transnationalism, Science and Technology, etc.). The list of options varies from year to year: those offered in the current year are listed here.

This paper consists of two parts.

  • Paper 3a is an outline proposal for the MSc dissertation research of no more than 2,500 words.
  • Paper 3b is a methods portfolio consisting of reports (including notes) on trials of three visual and material anthropological methods and/or ethnographic museological methods relevant to the research proposal proposed in paper 3(a). The word limit is 2,500 words. A contents page indexing the materials presented should also be included, as should a short overview document that introduces the portfolio and relates the various pieces to the published literature on research methods.

This is a three-hour written exam paper that focuses on anthropology’s distinctive contribution to understanding social and cultural form and process, and the role of human creativity within them, with particular reference to artefacts of material and visual culture, and to the collection and display of such artefacts.

Each student has a supervisor for the duration of their degree, who advises the student in general matters and takes care of all the paperwork. However, all students have tutorials from all the core teaching team, ensuring that all students have exposure to the latest research in each area.

During the first, Michaelmas, term the emphasis in lectures and tutorials is on Papers 1 and 4, to introduce and develop competencies in core areas of visual, material and museum anthropology. Teaching takes place in lecture theatres, in staff offices, but also in the Pitt Rivers Museum’s galleries, and through film screenings. For Paper 3 students are introduced to a variety of field- and museum-based research methods specific to visual and material anthropology, often through practical exercises such as creating a photographic essay or using an ethnographic object as the basis of an interview in the field, as well as more generic anthropological methods such as participant-observation. For Paper 2, students have the choice of any of the options offered in ISCA; several of these are directly relevant to the VMMA programme, such as Anthropology and Film, or Material Culture and the Anthropology of Things, but students can choose any of the options on offer.

Teaching for some options continues into the third term, but otherwise students concentrate on preparing their Paper 3 materials, refining their dissertation topic in discussion with their supervisor, and preparing for the June examinations. Papers 4 is examined by a conventional three-hour unseen examination paper in June, while Paper 1 and 2 is assessed by a 5,000 word essay, and Paper 3 by a research proposal and a portfolio of methods exercises; this wide spread of assessment methods allows students to demonstrate different presentational skills, appropriate to the subject matter under consideration.

MSc students then have the three months of the summer to research and write a 10,000 word dissertation for submission in September; students choose and refine the dissertation topic in consultation with their supervisor and other tutors as appropriate, but write the dissertation unaided as a piece of independent research. Those students who stay on for the second year of the MPhil do not write the MSc dissertation but spend the summer conducting preliminary research, and then over the second year of the degree write a 30,000 word dissertation. Fieldwork is not expected as a basis for either the MSc dissertation or the MPhil thesis, but it can be conducted, and all students are encouraged to make use of the extensive visual and material cultural resources available in the Department and the Museum in selecting and researching dissertation and thesis topics.

In the second year MPhil students also write another examined essay during the year, and take another option paper, again selected from any of the options offered for the ISCA degrees.

Throughout the year students attend a variety of seminars, most notably the Pitt Rivers Museum Research Seminar in Material, Visual and Museum Anthropology every Friday lunchtime, and the Departmental Seminar every Friday afternoon. Both seminars showcase the work of invited speakers, often internationally renowned experts in their fields, and expose students to the latest in visual and material culture research, as well as other developments within the field of anthropology: some recent seminar papers can be listened to as podcasts.

Additional teaching is provided by other members of the School.