The primary role of a museum curator is to acquire, manage and interpret museum collections. A museum curator has many different responsibilities that fall within these primary functions, and the daily work of a curator varies considerably depending on the size and type of museum. But before we take a closer look at the museum curator’s role, and what it takes to become one, it helps to clarify what we mean by the word “museum”. The museum as an institution and the nature of its work have changed dramatically over the past 75 years, so much so that what goes on inside museums still remains largely unknown to the general public.
In the museum profession, a museum is actually thought of as a family of non-profit educational organizations whose primary purposes are 1) to preserve the cultural and natural heritage of humankind and understand our place in the universe and 2) to provide information to the general public through informal education. Informal education refers to voluntary learning, guided by a person’s own needs and desires, using the museum’s exhibitions and educational programs (not formal learning in a classroom, as guided by a school teacher or college professor).
As a family of organizations, museums include government-financed museums (city, county, state, provincial and national), art museums and non-profit art galleries, history museums, historical societies, historic buildings, natural history museums, anthropology and cultural heritage museums, science centers and science museums, planetaria, transportation museums (air, space, maritime, railway, and automobile), military museums, living collections (zoos, botanical gardens, arboreta, aquaria), interpretive centers for open-air facilities (such as paleontological and archaeological sites, historic monuments, battlefields, and national parks … etc.), living history museums, and rural/folk architecture museums—in addition to many other specialized museums. This list might seem long, but put simply, all of these organizations in the family of museums are about two things: preservation and public education.
Responsibilities of a Museum Curator
Curator comes from the Latin word curare meaning “to take care of” and the curator’s primary task is to oversee the museum’s collections. The use of the word “curator” itself has changed considerably over the past 25 years, referring to the professional and traditional career of a curator (as explained in this article) or an administrative job title as the head of a department within a large museum. For example, a “curator of education” would be the supervisor of a museum’s education department. In the UK, museums use the title “keeper” instead of curator (e.g., a “keeper of antiquities” would be the museum’s expert on archaeological collections). To add more confusion, it has also become fashionable to use the word “curate” (outside of museums) in some rather interesting ways—from curated lists of wines in restaurants to curating lists of movies for film festivals. However, this article will focus on the traditional definition of a curator.
Museums hire many different types of professionals—such as exhibit designers, fundraisers, conservators, collections managers, educators, museum directors—and curators play a central role in the museum by interacting with all of these employees. Large museums will have many curators, each recognized in a specialized field (curator of Japanese art or curator of invertebrate zoology) and with a support staff. Small, local museums, however, might have only one curator with excellent knowledge of the museum’s entire collection or will have a professional employee who covers two or more jobs in the museum, such as a museum director who is also the curator, or a curator who also does fundraising, educational programming, or collections management.
But first and foremost, curators are the experts on the collections, from being paleontologists who find and excavate dinosaurs to art historians who can detect a fake Rembrandt from a real Rembrandt. A museum does not have the space to collect everything, so the curator makes the judgement as to which objects the museum will acquire for its collections. The curator is responsible for developing exhibition topics and conducts research on the museum’s collections and exhibitions. Ideas for exhibits are planned out three or more years in advance in order to negotiate the borrowing of objects from other museums or from private owners. Curators work with exhibition designers and educators to create displays that are engaging and informative to the general public.
Other common responsibilities of a museum curator include marketing, fundraising and public relations. They also work with the museum’s educational staff who develop educational programs for the adult general public, teachers, and children as well as work with schools to coordinate tours for students. Part of their job description is to develop and manage relationships with donors and to apply for grants to fund the museum’s exhibits and operations. In small museums, curators have administrative and operational responsibilities that encompass budget preparation and staff management. Some museum curators, especially in museums of art, anthropology, or cultural heritage work with key stakeholders (such as Native American groups or other relevant communities) regarding a variety of matters pertaining to the museum’s exhibits and collections. Curators also need skills for writing and public speaking to publish exhibition catalogues and magazine articles as well as to deliver public lectures.
How to Become a Museum Curator
It’s not uncommon for museum curators to have an advanced degree, such as a Master’s in art history, archaeology, history, anthropology, or in the sciences. Some have earned a Ph.D. When a doctorate is obtained, they will typically publish articles related to their area of study and give presentations at conferences or even teach college courses. Large museums will usually hire curators whose academic majors are relevant to specific collections—for instance, a curator would need a degree in European art history to work with collections of European paintings, or a degree in physics to work at a science museum.
Places Where Museum Curators Work
There are many different places where a museum curator can work. Because curators are knowledgeable in a particular area, they usually work for museums with collections in that same field. However, as the reader can see by the many different types of museums, curators are found in a vast array of organizations! Some also work in education, private organizations and governmental agencies. The role of a museum curator is multifaceted and dynamic. If you have an appreciation for art, anthropology, history, or science, this might be a great career path for you.
For further reading:
Schlatter, N. E. (2008) Museum Careers: A Practical Guide for Novices and Students. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Young, T. R. (2019) So You Want to Work in a Museum? Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Lubar, S. D. (2017) Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Grande, L. (2017) Curators: Behind the Scenes of Natural History Museums. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press.