Curator Job Description

Next time you visit a museum, take a minute to think about the work that went into selecting each piece in an exhibit. Think about all the design decisions that had to be made, and pay attention to how the exhibit progresses as you walk through it. A lot of work goes into each little piece of an exhibit. This is the work of a curator.

Curators are responsible for selecting, acquiring, and displaying the collections that you see when you visit a museum.

Most curators are highly specialized. Since most exhibits cover one very specific topic, the curator for that exhibit has to be an expert at that topic so they can choose the most relevant pieces to display and arrange then in a way that will make sense to the visitors.

Small museums may have only one curator, but large ones often employ many, each with their own areas of expertise. For example, a large natural history museum might employ many curators who are each experts in a different areas of natural history.

In a small museum, curators may have many responsibilities that aren’t related to designing exhibits or acquiring new collections. Sometimes they need to perform administrative tasks needed to keep the museum in operation. They may also take care of advertising efforts.

Acquiring pieces for an exhibit can be a very big job. If a curator wants to buy a new piece for their collection, approval often has to be granted by the museum’s board of trustees. Getting approval can be time consuming, and there are often political games involved.

Not all exhibit pieces are purchases, though. Sometimes, they are borrowed from a collector or from another museum. Acquiring items this way can be just as difficult as buying them, because the lenders have to make sure that their pieces will be very well cared for.

If you have a passion for a particular subject and want to share your passion with others, then working as a curator can be a great way to do so.

Work Environment and Schedule

Nearly half of all curators work at museums and historical sites, but there are also opportunities available at colleges and universities, as well as local, state, and federal government agencies. Places like zoos, aquariums, and botanical gardens also need curators to help them display their collections.

Some curators have to travel to research and identify items that they would like to add to their collections. The travel can be extensive, and curators can be away from home for long periods of time. Not all curators travel, though. If your personal obligations require you to stay close to home, there are plenty of positions that will allow you that stability.

Most curators work full time. Those who work at small museums are often able to keep regular working schedules, but frequent overtime is often required for those who work at large museums that display elaborate exhibits.

Since museums are often open on evenings and weekends, curators are often required to work at those times.

How to Become a Curator

A minimum of a master’s degree is required for most curator positions. Curators come from all sorts of academic backgrounds, but normally need to match their degree with the museum they wish to work for. For example, if you wanted to work in an American History museum, a master’s in that field of study would be needed.

Some museums require that their curators have a Ph.D. in their area of specialty. This requirement is especially common in science and natural history museums, where curators have to be much more familiar with current academic research than those who work in other types of museums that specialize in more static subject matter.

If you want to work in a small museum, it’s sometimes possible to get a job as a curator with only a bachelor’s degree. However, getting a master’s is still the smart thing you to do if you want to spend your entire career as a curator. Without one, your opportunities for growth and advancement will be limited.

If you have dreams of becoming a museum director one day, you should put time aside for individual research during your career. Having your research published in academic journals is often necessary for these positions.

Related Occupations

Employment Outlook

There are currently 12,000 curators in the United States, with 630 new curator job openings created each year.

Curator jobs are not expected to see much growth beyond their current levels in the next decade.

Curator Salaries

Overall Salaries

Curator salaries can vary depending on your experience, the location, company, industry, and benefits provided. Nationwide, most curators make between $36,200 – $67,000 per year, or $17.38 – $32.22 per hour.

Updated: 09/02/2017

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