Career Path Options for a Curator

The average value of the Master degree needed to become a curator is $1,253,284.00.

Points of Interest

Positions require a minimum of a Masters degree, with a Ph.D. preferred, plus related work experience – Most have done graduate work in art, art history, or a related specialized field. Candidates will have worked in a museum setting, or in an educational environment, either during graduate school or at a post-graduate level

Nature of the Work

Curators work mainly in museums, but also with governments, zoos, educational institutions, and businesses, sorting through objects and data such as art, artifacts, historical documents, photographs, coins, stamps, and any other work that may be of past, present, or future importance. Permanent and temporary displays are then created, compiled, and displayed based on projected public and industry interest.

In addition, curators are expected to manage collections in an even broader capacity. They work with publishers, educators, museum and zoo personnel, directors, board members, collectors and owners, and the media to ensure successful exhibitions, increase profitability, and promote accurate coverage and handling of all pieces of a collection.

Museums rely on curators to identify high quality works that the public will enjoy. Some specialize in specific art forms such as sculpture, painting, or photography, while others focus on particular time periods. Curators are responsible for the safety of the display pieces, and are frequently required to solicit donations of works of art from collectors and businesses. They are also expected to verify the authenticity and value of each piece.

Curators analyze, organize, test, and classify objects according to age and origin, then catalog each item and maintain the associated records and databases.

Curator Career

They must be proficient in handling owners and dealers, as all purchase, sale, loan, or exchange of artifact responsibilities fall to the curator. Leadership abilities are paramount considering the range of personnel, department heads, and other individuals with which the curator is required to manage and consult.

Curators coordinate activities and programs such as public education, tours, workshops, classes, lectures, and other programs relevant to the institution or specific collection.

A curator often must attend conventions and other events for research purposes, then work with a board of directors to decide on plans and budgets, and is responsible for adherence of said decisions. They must be highly informed of all aspects of the areas of any exhibits, constantly learning and applying new information to their work.

Curators plan exhibitions, from writing grant proposals, journal articles, reports, and publicity materials, to ensuring that all data related to a collection is represented properly and professionally.

Usually, a curator specializes in a specific area, with large museums employing several separate curators for individual collections. In these instances, those curators would be expected to be highly trained in their particular area. Smaller institutions might have only one curator, who would be well-versed in all departments and responsible for the full spectrum of possible job responsibilities.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

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A master’s degree is required for work as a curator. Some museums, especially those related to natural history or science, require a doctoral degree. Graduate work in art, art history, anthropology, archaeology, and history are common precursors for museum work, especially as a curator.

Education in museum studies can be beneficial for those interested in obtaining a position as a curator, and candidates with more than one degree or area of expertise gain a clear advantage in the job market. For small museums, a bachelor’s degree may be accepted, assuming the candidate has a great proficiency in administrative duties, public relations, and business skills.

Curators must have technical knowledge not only of preservation and cataloging techniques, but must also be proficient with web applications, digital imaging, and scanning. Large amounts of information will pass through a curator’s hands, so they must be highly organized in regards to both information and time management.

Curators must possess superior research and analytical abilities, and must be able to understand and decipher documents, photographs, handwriting and printed works, some of which may have deteriorated or been partially destroyed. . A Curator must also be able to organize large amounts of information.

Continuing education is extremely important for curators, as new facts, artifacts, and theories are constantly being found and studied. The fields of art and science are in a constant state of flux, and a curator must be well-informed on a continual basis. Meetings, conferences, and workshops offer curators valuable information and education opportunities, and in-house training through larger organizations is often necessary.

Employment

Employment options include museums, parks, libraries, zoos, historical sites, religious organizations, educational institutions both public and private, federal, state, and local governmental entities, and military agencies.

Job Outlook

Employment of curators is expected to increase 23 percent between 2008 and 2018, which is a much faster than average growth rate. As public interest in the fields of art, science, and history continue, museum attendance will also increase. More positions for curators will be available, and salaries are expected to increase with demand. Though more jobs will become available, competition for these positions will be intense. Curator candidates will need more specialized training across the board. Two or more master’s degrees may become standard, and Ph.D. candidates will certainly have an increasing upper hand. Proficiency in modern technology related to conservation, preservation, and record-keeping will be expected. Since many people with museum studies degrees, as well as degrees in art, art history, and anthropology are attracted to curator positions, these candidates may have to start closer to the bottom of the career ladder.

Part-time work, internships, volunteer and assistant positions will be important stepping stones, and expected levels of competency and body of work will carry more weight in the quest for permanent status. Because curators are expected to work with directors, public relations personnel, the media, and the rest of the museum staff, the ability to relate well and take on a managerial role will also become increasingly necessary. Knowledge of a foreign language and geographic flexibility will also be important.

Earnings & Wages

Between 2004 and 2008, median annual wages for curators went from $43,920 to $47,220 for those in the private sector, and government employed curators made a median income of $76,126. In 2008, overall salaries ranged from less than $26,850 to more than $83,290.

In March 2009 the average annual salary for museum curators was $90,205.

Salaries for curators in large, well-funded museums were of course higher than those in small museums. Benefits such as holiday and sick leave, paid vacations, health insurance, and retirement plans are usually included.

Projections

Competition is high among positions for curators, since there are fewer job openings than there are qualified candidates. While a faster than average growth rate (increase in the number of available positions) of 23% is projected through 2018, applicants will have to be highly trained and even more specialized to obtain a position.

Related Occupations

  • Archaeologists
  • Anthropologists
  • Other social scientists
  • Artists and related fields
  • Art historians
  • Zoo directors
  • Library directors

Sources of Additional Information

For information about curator careers and schools offering museum studies courses: American Association of Museums 1575 Eye St. NW, Ste. 400 Washington, DC 20005 (202) 289-1818.

For information about obtaining a position as a curator with the Federal Government, click here.