A Day in the Life of a Curator
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.
Paying Your Dues
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.
Present and Future
Curatorship arose from the needs of museums, libraries, and societies to maintain and
preserve their collections while at the same time publicize them, encourage donations, and
expose the public to their artifacts. Curatorship existed as early as 1750 in the United States
but without any specific label until the early 1900s. The years 1950–1984 were strong years for
museum growth and funding, but beginning in 1985 and continuing into the present, museums
have been under severe financial pressure due to lack of government funding and general
People who are interested in becoming curators should note that during lean-funding
years, the position involves much more grant writing, publicity, and fund-raising than it does
collection maintenance and acquisition. Extra time spent at social functions to raise money
can be significant. Funding decisions, however, are cyclical; what is true for the industry today
may change within a very short period of time.
Quality of Life
PRESENT AND FUTURE
Most curators at this point are still in graduate school. Many take curatorial assistant
positions, as well as collection manager jobs (which are more task-oriented) to
gain experience and begin making connections that will prove invaluable later in
their careers. Duties of assistant curators include cataloging existing items and research.
Some curators with good writing skills may be assigned to grant-writing positions, writing of
object labels and other gallery text, as well as printed handouts. A significant number of people
get jobs through the recommendations of their professors. The hours are long; the pay is
low, if any pay is forthcoming at all.
FIVE YEARS OUT
Five-year veterans have completed at least a master’s degree, and many of them continue
along the PhD track. A number of curatorial assistants have become curatorial
associates with expanded responsibilities and hours. Many people who are not
in school may be asked to travel during these periods; others who are in school may be asked
to work odd hours, when there is no museum traffic. Duties include assisting with loan
agreement forms for the temporary exhibitions; collecting images for publications; overseeing
interns, volunteers, and researchers; along with coordinating access to artifacts with
scholars and academics who need access for research projects. A few begin to write copy for
educational and promotional literature.
TEN YEARS OUT
A number of professionals have achieved the status of curator or senior curator.
These people are involved in planning the museum’s exhibition program, curating
exhibitions, writing catalog essays, staffing, budgeting, trading items with other
museums, and piecing collections together for display. Responsibilities are extraordinarily
high; salaries become commensurate with the work. Curators direct any internal museum
research on pieces and invite academics to join in the study. The newest responsibility that
curators have is working with the president and chairman of the museum to direct all fundraising
efforts. Political skills are crucial for this position. Many curators teach at local
schools, publish research, and review academic articles for publication. The hours are long,
but satisfaction has never been higher. Ten-year curators face a strong future in this competitive
and demanding field.