Curators (sometimes referred to as archivists in libraries) collect, exhibit, interpret, maintain,
and protect objects of historical and aesthetic importance primarily in museums, libraries,
and private collections. Curators are responsible for the safety and proper presentation of the
works. “It’s all so fascinating and beautiful that you can find yourself touching history,” wrote
one respondent. This sense of connection to the motion and beauty of history as expressed
through objects is something nearly all the curators who responded mentioned. Almost none
of them entered college with the expectation of becoming curators. The profession seemed to
“just appear out of thin air.”Satisfaction and responsibility
are usually high in this profession at all levels, with
the exception of those curators who find that they are
unable to spend enough time with the art they love because of their obligations to do publicity,
fund-raising, and grant writing.
Curators’ duties include creating exhibitions, acquiring works for the collection, meeting
with and educating trustees, labeling exhibits, accurately and carefully keeping track of inventory,
and, at times, overseeing research on collection pieces to make certain the integrity of
the piece is maintained (such as dating tests for fossils or X-ray analysis of paintings to determine
origin). “I’ve got a PhD, and I’m trying to find a good way to deal with termites,” said
one curator. These varied and wide-ranging duties require someone with a mind attuned to
details. Another facet of the curator’s job is educating the public about the objects and publicizing
their existence. Most literature one receives 0r audio tracks one listens to at a museum
were written by a curator. Grant writing is the third area of responsibility for most curators;
much of this is done in consultation with collection managers and curatorial assistants.
Curators should have excellent written communication skills. Managing a large staff, including
interns and volunteers, is the most unexpected side of the profession. Many curators find
the classification and preservation skills they know useless in coordinating the tasks of a full,
dedicated staff. “You have to learn to delegate to people’s levels of competence,” mentioned
one veteran curator, and others agreed. “Although you’re in charge,” said another, “you can’t
do it alone.” Curators who can manage a staff and the details of their job are, for the most part,
successful in and excited by their choice of career.
Both graduate education and practical experience are required for people who wish to
become curators. Aside from an extensive knowledge of history and art, it is useful to have a
basic understanding of chemistry, restoration techniques, museum studies, and even physics
and public relations. Curators must have basic skills in aesthetic design, organizational behavior,
business, fund-raising, and publicity. Many employers look favorably on foreign language
skills as well. To become a collection manager or a curatorial assistant, a master’s degree is
required. To become a curator at a national museum, a PhD is required, as is about five years
of field experience. The market is competitive, and academic standards are very high. Useful
graduate degrees include restoration science, curatorship, art history, history, chemistry, and
business administration. Nearly all curators find it helpful to engage in continuing education.
Research and publication in academic journals are important for advancement in the field.
Curators become art historians, critics, college professors, museum educators, and museum
directors. A notable few become independent consultants and independent researchers, but
significant achievement in the field is required before these opportunities become available.