Museum Curator

By TACP Staff on July 06, 2021

Anyone who loves roaming the hallways of museums and historical centers and is interested in the preservation and acquisition of works of art, but is also committed to advancing their education may be well-suited for a career as a museum curator.

What Is a Museum Curator?

A museum curator (sometimes also called a gallery curator) manages collections of works of art and artifacts. Day-to-day, curators attend to the care and display of items, such as artwork, collections, historical or scientific items, as well as the acquisition of new works of art, usually with the aim of educating the public. They also provide information and design displays for the benefit of visitors. The role of curator may overlap a bit with that of a manager, as the job can also include public relations, fundraising, marketing, and educational programs. They also often form relationships with stakeholders and community liaisons, prepare budgets, and manage gallery staff.

Recently a new breed of the curator has emerged called ‘curators of digital data objects.’ Digital curation is the maintenance, collection, preservation, and archiving of digital assets like digital musical scores, 3D set designs, etc. It entails the process of developing and establishing long-term repositories of digital assets for reference by scientists, researchers, historians, and scholars.

What Does a Museum Curator Do?

In smaller museums and galleries, and in volunteer-based museums, a curator may have more specialized duties, such as taking care of acquisitions and care of collections. However, the curator may be the only paid staff member, so responsibilities may also include making decisions regarding which objects to choose for display, overseeing documentation, conducting research about the history of a collection, and finding packaging for art during transportation. Although they might also share information with the public, in smaller museums this task is more commonly carried out by volunteer staff.

In larger museums, a curator will commonly fill the role as a subject specialist, but will also conduct research on objects, as well as oversee the acquisition of collections. In large museums, there may be more than one curator with each filling a specific duty, such as curator of ancient art or curator of drawings, and there are typically many employees overseeing the daily tasks involved in running the museum. For example, the physical care of a collection might be overseen by a museum collections manager and administrative tasks may be handled by a museum registrar.

Specific responsibilities of a curator vary from one museum to the next but typically include acquiring objects and collections, keeping records and cataloging acquisitions, planning and organizing exhibitions, researching objects and collections, administrative duties such as planning budgets, negotiating loan items, writing bids, and staff training and management. They may also deal with inquiries from the public, clients, and stakeholders, laisse with community groups and management boards, governors, trustees, and council members to secure funding for the museum, network with other museum and gallery members, among other duties.

Because the responsibilities of a museum curator are so broad, they must also have a broad skill set, including a passion for history and art, an eye for detail, patience, and superior organizational skills. They must take a methodical approach in their work, have the ability to complete research and academically-focused work, have strong communication and writing skills, as well as dedication, and the capacity to juggle more than one job at a time and do both well. They also must have administrative and managerial skills, a strong work ethic, and artsy, creative flair.

Related: 30 Must-See Art Museums in the U.S.

Museum Curator Education Requirements

Museum curators are highly educated professionals, and most earn a master’s degree in history, history of art, museum studies, anthropology, or archeology. Many curators will hold a doctor of philosophy degree. They are also expected to contribute to their academic field by publishing articles, presenting at conferences, or speaking. In smaller museums, curators may only need a bachelor’s degree, but because they perform administrative tasks, like marketing, fundraising, and public relations work, coursework in business administration is also recommended. It is also advised to enroll in basic chemistry and public relations courses, as well.

Aside from extensive studies in history and art, it is also useful that curators have an understanding of restoration techniques and museum studies. Even physics and advanced math coursework is recommended. Curators must have basic aesthetic design skills, fund-raising, and business knowledge, and many employers also look favorably on applicants who have foreign language skills.

To become a curator at a national museum, like the Smithsonian in Washington DC or the National Gallery in London, a Ph.D. is required, in conjunction with five-years field experience. Graduate degrees will include advanced coursework in art history, curatorship, history, chemistry, and business administration, and nearly all curators find it necessary to perform continuing education by conducting research, attending conferences, and publishing academic articles and white papers.

At all levels of education, internships or volunteering at a local museum are essential ways to gain employment, refine your knowledge and skill set by working under the direction of other museum curators, learn more about a curator’s job duties and the museum routine. Individuals entering this field are advised to seek as many internships as possible. During an internship, you will work as an assistant curator and learn many valuable skills, such as exhibit design, database management, collections management, and restoration techniques. Internships help you make professional connections and further your experience in this field.

The curatorial field is competitive, and aspiring curators with practical experience and well-rounded education are likely to land jobs. In addition, earning two graduate degrees can be beneficial. For example, a degree in museology (museum studies) and another specialized field just might give one job candidate an advantage over another.

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Where Does a Museum Curator Work?

The majority (37 percent) of museum and gallery curators work in galleries, museums, historical sites, and similar institutions. Twenty-three percent work in government, and 18 percent work in education; state, local and private institutions. Other workplaces include art spaces, tourist attractions, like zoos and aquariums, botanical gardens, nature centers, and sometimes in community art centers. Curators will also spend much of their time working in offices and storerooms, or providing education and reference assistance to the public. Because curators work with valuable artwork, antiques, and collectibles, they will also work under tight security.

Curators working in larger museums may travel extensively to evaluate potential collections for display in the museum, to organize exhibits, or conduct research. Most work full-time, but they may also work extra hours preparing an exhibition, or during evening meetings or other social events. Curators working in smaller galleries and museums rarely travel.

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