Museum Directors and Curators
Museums, as well as historical societies and state and federal agencies with public archives and libraries, hire directors and curators. These institutions are located throughout the world, in both small and large cities, and are responsible for providing public access to their collections. Museums and similar institutions employ directors and curators to fulfill their educational goals through continued research, care of collections, and public programs.
Museology, or the study of museums, is offered as an undergraduate major by some colleges in the United States, but most museum workers at all levels enter museum work because they possess specific skills and a body of knowledge useful to a particular museum. For a museum director, and also for a well-qualified curator, this translates into content knowledge, managerial and administrative skills, fund-raising ability, leadership ability, and excellent communication skills for effective interaction with the media and the board of trustees. While the role of a curator is focused primarily on collections and the role of director is often more administrative and interpersonal, the two positions require a great degree of knowledge across the board regarding the museum's mission statement, acquisitions, and community involvement.
Museum directors typically move into a directorship in one of three ways: laterally, from a previous directorship of another museum; vertically, from an administrative or curatorial position within the same museum; or laterally from a different sphere of employment, such as a university presidency, business management, government agency, or law practice.
A position as curator usually is not anticipated and prepared for in advance, but becomes available as an employment option following a long period of training in a discipline. College and advanced degree students who have identified a curatorial position as a career goal may be able to apply for curatorial internships of varying terms, usually a year or less. Interns typically work on a project identified by the museum, which may involve only one task or several different tasks. Additionally, museums thrive on a large base of volunteer labor, and this method of gaining museum experience should not be overlooked. Curators may ask volunteers to assist in a variety of tasks, ranging from clerical duties to conservation and computerized cataloguing. When funds are available, volunteer work may be converted to hourly paid work.
Museum directors typically succeed one another, moving from smaller museums to larger museums or from a general to a specialty museum. A museum directorship is a lifetime career goal and may be held for decades by the same person. A museum director who retires from the position is well prepared to sit on state or national advisory councils to the arts and sciences. Some return to academic life through teaching, research, or curricula development. Others provide oversight and guidance to large institutions, sit on corporate boards, or become involved in the start-up of new museums.
Curatorial positions follow the assistant, associate, and full (or senior) track of academic employment, with advancement depending on research and publishing, education, and service to the institution. A curator with a taste for and skill in administration may serve as departmental chair or may seek a higher administrative post.
In the course of their museum duties, curators may act as advisers to or principals in external nonprofit endeavors, such as setting up international ecological preserves or providing technical assistance and labor to aid a developing country in the study of its archaeological past. Many teach in local schools or universities. Curators who leave museum work may devote themselves full time to these or similar pursuits, although a university professorship as a second choice is difficult to achieve, for curators and professors are essentially competing for the same market position and have similar credentials. Occasionally, curators find fieldwork so compelling that they leave not only the museum, but also all formal employment, relying on grants and personal contributions from supporters to fund their work. To maintain an independent life as a researcher without formal affiliation requires a high profile in the discipline, continuing demonstration of productivity in the form of new research and publications, and some skill in self-promotion.
Tips for Entry
Read Museum magazine and Aviso (both available at https://www.aam-us.org/programs/about-aam/publications) to learn more about the field.
Join the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors to take advantage of networking opportunities, continuing education classes, and other resources.
Attend the AAM's Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo to learn about potential employers, network, and participate in continuing classes.
For job listings or to contact museums directly to learn more about job openings, visit:
Check out the AAM's Emerging Museum Professionals group (https://www.aam-us.org/programs/manage-your-career/emerging-professionals) for new museum professionals, offering career advice, networking opportunities, and other helpful resources.