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If wandering the halls of museums and galleries is one of your favorite pastimes, a career as a museum curator (also sometimes called a gallery curator) might be for you. If you have a passion for art, history, and culture, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a talented artist yourself: you could have an art-related career as a museum curator. But what does a museum curator do? What are the museum curator job requirements? And do you need a degree in art? We’re here to answer these questions, and more.
What does a museum curator do? Turns out, there’s no single museum curator job description, and the everyday duties of a museum curator vary significantly depending on the size of the museum or gallery where they work.
A large, well-known, and well-funded museum like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) or the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) will have many curators, each working on specific collections. Smaller museums and galleries, on the other hand, may only have one curator who oversees the running of the whole institution. These folks may also work with guest curators for traveling exhibits.
Generally speaking, some of the museum curator job requirements are:
- Taking care of items in the museum or gallery’s permanent collection
- Planning special exhibits of items in the permanent collection
- Liaising with other museums and institutions for traveling exhibits
- Acquiring new artworks and artifacts
- Recording and documenting the items in the collection
- Writing or editing textual displays
- Writing and planning outreach and promotional materials for the museum
- Planning community events and fundraisers
- Managing the finances of the museum or department
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Museum curatorship is not a career that many people fall into by accident. It’s a competitive field that requires passion and specialist knowledge.
While a degree in art or art history is a good starting point for a museum curator career, it’s not the only one. Other related subjects such as anthropology, archaeology, history, cultural studies, and area studies (think, European studies or South Asian studies) are also beneficial at the undergrad level. If you’re more interested in working in a scientific museum than an art museum, subjects such as environmental science, geography, or astronomy would also be helpful.
Whatever your major, it’s important to have a passion for a more specific subject area, whether that’s modern North American painting, pre-Columbian Central American archaeology, indigenous Australian art, or Renaissance Italian portraiture. Sometimes people discover these passions through the course of their studies, so it’s fine if you’re just starting college and aren’t quite sure where your interests lie!
Many museum curators also have higher degrees, both master’s degrees and PhDs. Specialist master’s degrees in museum studies or curatorship are offered at some universities, like Johns Hopkins, Tufts, and Georgetown. These provide the general training you’d need to work as a curator, from museum management to ethics and historiography. Curators who go on to get PhDs have usually worked in a museum or gallery setting first and have discovered a niche subject they want to delve into further.
Does Experience Count in Place of a Degree?
In some career paths, having on-the-job experience is as valuable, if not more so, than having a degree. This isn’t really the case in the world of museums, because to get your foot in the door in the first place, you need the right academic training and knowledge.
While it would be possible to learn about the day-to-day running of a museum as a business by doing it on the job, there’s much more to a career as a museum curator. Your academic training in a particular subject area is essential.
After all that learning, you want to be able to make a living as a museum curator, right? Luckily, there are many options, depending on your area of interest and specialization.
Types of Museums Where Museum Curators Work
We’ve already mentioned the Met, but there are plenty of other places that museum curators work. Each has different levels and structures of funding.
Some large museums have many departments and combine several of the following types, while others are smaller and only exhibit one type of art or artifact.
- Archaeology and ethnographic museums
- Palace or castle museums, or those that are part of historic buildings
- Science and natural history museums
- Museums attached to colleges and universities
- Folk museums
- Outdoor museums and history parks (sometimes with staff dressed in period costume!)
- Local and regional history museums
- War memorial museums
- Libraries and manuscript collections
- Historic sites and memorials
- Small commercial galleries, selling art by local professional artists
- Community galleries, selling or showing non-professional art
Average Museum Curator Salary
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the median salary for archivists, curators, and museum workers in 2020 as $52,000 per year, or around $25 per hour. While this isn’t particularly lucrative, remember that this is the median: there’s also the potential to earn more when you’re experienced. This also includes staff who work in museums, such as in the ticket office. Not all museum workers are specialist curators.
The BLS also notes that there’s much faster than average growth in this career, meaning that well-trained and skilled curators will likely have good job security in the next decade.
Different Job Levels
As with many careers, there are different steps on the ladder toward becoming a museum curator. Most professionals start at the bottom, after getting their bachelor’s and master’s degree, and work their way up to senior positions over 10 or more years.
These are the rough steps that many museum curators follow (though many museum curator job descriptions will include variations or combinations of the below):
- Curatorial assistant: These entry-level jobs, tasked with assisting other roles, are often filled by grad school students.
- Collection manager: This is a task-oriented job that includes cataloging and research and possibly grant application writing.
- Curatorial associate: This role has more responsibility than a curatorial assistant and includes the general running and planning of museums and exhibitions.
- Curator/senior curator: These higher-level roles involve liaising with scholars and university staff on research projects and writing their own research papers, as well as the general running of museums and galleries.
Where Can Museum Curators Work Besides Museums?
As with many creative career paths, it’s helpful to think laterally when looking for jobs that use your museum curator training. If you can’t or don’t want to find a job in a museum or gallery setting, you could also work in:
- Universities, as lecturers (either as an adjunct or full-time member of staff)
- Local government or engineering and construction companies, as archaeological consultants
- Theaters, as set designers
- Publishing houses, as designers, editors, or consultants on art-related books
- Auction houses like Sotheby’s
- Furniture or homeware stores, as buyers
- Tour companies as an art, history, or architecture-related tour guide
If this all sounds exciting and you’re interested in working in this field, learn as much as you can about museums and art-related topics that interest you. Perhaps that means taking some extra courses at college or doing some online study (which won’t give you formal credits but are a low-risk way of exploring a career path).
While nobody said a museum curator career would be easy, it’s highly rewarding for those who are passionate. Have fun!
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