'I'm obsessed with forensic art': meet the niche postgraduates


In a great piece in today's Guardian, UWTSD's Dr Nick Campion and graduate, Morag Feeney-Beaton discuss the benefits of studying a unique and personal MA.

Whether you’re into cosmological weaving, reconstructing faces or redefining human rights, a one-of-a-kind MA could be the way to explore unusual interests.

For her master’s dissertation, Morag Feeney-Beaton asked 60 practising spinners and weavers how far mythical and cosmological traditions influence their work.

“A lot of people you talk to feel a sense of destiny about their spinning and weaving. They have been led to it,” she says.

One of her classmates looked at celestial-religious images in a 14th-century monastery in Kosovo, while another travelled to Sark in the Channel Islands to study dark skies – places without light pollution. A fellow graduate of the course has discovered prehistoric tombs that may have been used as telescopes.

The MA in cultural astronomy and astrology, run by the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, is one of a handful of UK master’s courses that are unique. These one-of-a-kind degrees often appeal to students whose interests are a little more offbeat, like Feeney-Beaton, 57, who graduated in July after four years of part-time study.

“It is the only academic degree in the world which explores humanity’s relationship with the sky,” she says. “It becomes a very personal MA.”

Some of her classmates have scientific backgrounds, but others have religious, anthropological or astrological training.

Nicholas Campion, the programme director, says he is met with “constant surprise” because the MA covers both astrology and astronomy.

“The idea that they are somehow antagonistic runs very deep,” he says. “But we don’t need to take a position on the notions of scientific truth. I will look at both as storytelling systems.”

‘I can’t leave this alone, it’s an obsession’

Another course, run by the University of Dundee, draws similar intrigue; the course coordinator himself, Dr Christopher Rynn, hasn’t quite got over the novelty of it. His MSc sits between the departments for anatomy and art and design, and attracts all kinds of students, from plastic surgeons to police officers. In the first semester, students spend part of their time on still-life drawing, and part on dissecting dead people.

There are numerous short courses on specific techniques, but Dundee’s MSc in forensic art and facial identification is the only one-year course of its kind in the world.

“You can sort of split it into the living and the dead,” says Rynn, referring to the crafts his students learn. The former includes facial analysis from CCTV images, artificial age progression for missing children, and sketches based on eyewitness accounts. The latter includes post-mortem depiction – drawing people as they’d have looked before their bodies started to decompose – and facial reconstruction – estimating a face from a skull.

The university has a collection of skulls accompanied by photographs of their owners in life: the students will measure the skulls, apply scientific principles, and sculpt heads, later comparing them to the photographs.

One of Rynn’s students reconstructed the face and body of Alexander Tardy – a pirate who died in 1827 – from a cast of his skull held in Edinburgh University’s Anatomical Museum.

Another recently discovered that a skull held in Edinburgh and thought to be that of Lord Darnley, the second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, was actually not his. Her findings have solved a historic mystery. 

For Rynn, forensic art is much more than just a job. “I can’t leave this alone, it’s more of an obsession,” he says.

‘The placement made the course stand out’

Victoria Collingridge, 27, is studying for an MA in human rights, culture and social justice, which is in its second year at Goldsmiths University. While there are many human rights master’s courses, they tend to focus on law; Goldsmiths’ course description defines human rights as “moral claims to justice”, which are “not the same as legal rights”. It is aimed at aspiring campaigners, advocates and academics.

Collingridge, who works part-time as a community initiatives manager, chose the degree because it takes a more practical approach than other courses. In one two-day intensive module, for example, students are split into groups and told to plan for a disaster scenario, bearing in mind the specialism and capacity of an organisation they have been assigned.

For another module, Collingridge volunteered at a women’s drop-in centre. “This was by far the most important part of the course for me,” she says. “I realised I wanted to work with vulnerable women, and to do more for those who experience social inequality but are often ignored.”

Recent graduate Martha Crawford picked her MA for similar reasons: everyone studying community organising at Queen Mary University of London has the opportunity to do work experience with community organising group Citizens UK.

“The placement is the thing that really made the MA stand out to me,” says Crawford, who landed a job with Hackney Citizens halfway through the course. It can be studied part-time, and her classmates included people working for a library, the civil service and a church.

Queen Mary is the only university in the UK to teach community organising,an American concept developed by Saul Alinsky, who developed the craft to improve living conditions for poor communities in North America.

“It’s about communities coming together to tackle issues of social justice they face in their community, and the journey to change,” says Crawford, 27. “That is powerful in a world where very few people feel able to act.”