Museum Directors and Curators
Exploring this Job
Because of the diversity of U.S. museums and the academic background required for directorship and curatorial positions, high school students should simply concentrate on doing well in academic studies as preparation for either field. Museum directorships and curatorial positions are highly competitive and reward high academic achievement. Outside of school, participation in clubs that involve fund-raising activities can serve as a strong introduction to one important aspect of a museum director's job. Becoming the president of one of these clubs can provide you with supervisory skills and experience with delegating authority.
Museums offer public programs for people of all ages. Field trips or tours introduce students to activities conducted by local museums. You may consider participating in an archaeological dig. College-age students may work at museums as volunteers or perhaps as interns for course credit. Depending on the museum's needs, volunteers and interns may be placed anywhere in the museum, including administration, archives, and other areas where a student may observe staff functions firsthand.
A museum director's most important duties are administrative, including staff leadership, promoting fund-raising campaigns, and ensuring that the museum's mission is carried out. Directors of large museums may have the assistance of several divisional directors with the authority for specific areas of museum management, such as a director of finance, director of development, director of public programs, director of research, director of education, director of operations, and director of marketing and public relations. In recognition of the museum director's role as "director of directors," the museum director sometimes has the title of executive director.
One unusual but not uncommon activity for a museum director is the design of new facilities. A director may spend a year or more working with architects and planners to reconfigure existing areas of the museum, add a wing, or build a museum from the ground up. Construction can be expected to draw resources away from other museum operations and may be accompanied by a massive capital campaign.
Every museum is unique in its mission, the community it serves, its resources, and the way it operates. The responsibilities of directors, therefore, vary widely. Directors of children's museums typically have a background in education and apply educational philosophies to the design of exhibits and programs suitable for children. Interactive displays, live interpretation, and participatory theater are frequent components of children's museums, and community outreach programs help ensure that children of all backgrounds benefit from the museum's programs.
A director of a natural history museum may have a background in science and manage a staff of scientists. Concern for the disturbance of regional habitats and species extinction has prompted some museums to replace traditional galleries exhibiting birds, mammals, or fish with conceptual exhibits emphasizing ecology and evolution. In museums with a strong anthropological component, the repatriation of religious objects or ancestral remains to the country or people of origin is an important and controversial area. Considerable intercultural understanding and knowledge of state laws governing the disposition of materials in museums that receive state tax revenues is a prerequisite for many museum directors.
Directors of art museums typically have academic credentials in a specific art historical field and good financial and fund-raising skills to manage costly collections. The director may be personally involved in making acquisitions for the museum. Directors of museums reflecting a specific culture, such as Mexican, Asian, or Native American, need knowledge of that culture and diplomatic skills to arrange the exchange of exhibit material. An issue facing art museums today is the opinion that such institutions are for well-to-do patrons. Art museums are countering that impression by developing programs of interest to people of all backgrounds.
At science and technology museums, exhibits demonstrate basic physical or biological laws, such as those governing the workings of the human heart, or they may present historical or futuristic exhibits, displaying the actual spacecraft used in early flight or the technology of the future. Directors of science and technology museums place a high priority on instructing the young, and hands-on exhibits are a featured attraction.
Directors of folk museums and historical reconstructions are historians of culture during a particular period. Authenticity, preservation, and providing a historical perspective on modes of living, past and present, are concerns of the director.
A curator's chief responsibilities include study and preservation of the museum's collections. Depending on the museum's size, resources, and deployment of staff, those responsibilities may be expressed in several different directions. In museums with a large curatorial staff, senior curators may function primarily as administrators, overseeing departmental budgets and hiring new curators. In a different employment environment, curators may focus closely on the study and shape of the collections, exchanging materials with other museums or acquiring new specimens and artifacts to create a representative study collection of importance to scholarly work. In a third type of environment, curators may be primarily educators who describe and present collections to the visiting public. At any time, museum administrators may ask curators to redirect efforts toward a different goal of priority to the museum. Thus, a curator develops or brings to the position substantial knowledge of the materials in the collection, and that knowledge is used by the museum for a changing mix of purposes over time.
Curators may also spend time in the field or as visiting scholars at other museums as a means of continuing research related to the home institution's collections. Fieldwork is usually supported by grants from external sources. As specialists in their disciplines, curators may teach classes in local schools and universities, sometimes serving as academic advisers to doctoral degree candidates whose research is based on museum holdings. Almost all curators supervise a staff ranging from volunteers, interns, and students to research associates, collections managers, technicians, junior curators, and secretarial staff. Some sort of written work, whether it is labeling exhibits, preparing brochures for museum visitors, or publishing in scholarly journals, is typically part of the position.
In related positions, collections managers and curatorial assistants perform many of the same functions as curators, with more emphasis on study and cataloguing of the collections and less involvement with administration and staff supervision. The educational requirements for these positions may be the same as for a curatorial position. A curatorial candidate may accept a position as collections manager while awaiting a vacancy on the curatorial staff, since the opportunity to study, publish research, and conduct fieldwork is usually equally available in both positions. In art, historical, and anthropological museums, registrars and archivists may act as collections managers by cataloging and preserving documents and objects and making information on these items available for scholarly use.
Once hired, curators embark on what is essentially a lifelong program of continuing self-education in museum practices. Curators of large collections must remain current with preservation techniques, including climate control and pest control methods. The human working environment can affect collections in unpredictable ways. As an example, common fungi that afflict house plants may degrade the preservation environment of a collection of amphibians and reptiles, which may mean that all staff in the area are prohibited from introducing house plants into their workstations.
An important development in collections management is computerized cataloging of holdings for registry in national electronic databases. A number of larger museums and universities are working together to standardize data entry fields for these electronic registries, after which data on every item in a collection must be entered by hand and cross-checked for accuracy. Concurrently, there is a trend toward publishing through nonprint media, such as academic networks administered by the National Sciences Foundation. Continuing self-education in electronic technologies and participation in national conferences addressing these issues will be expected of curators throughout the upcoming decade and beyond, because electronic storage and retrieval systems have radically changed the face of collections management.