Museums are important institutions because they preserve society’s shared past, celebrate culture and educate people of all ages. They are also economic powerhouses, contributing $50 billion annually to the U.S. economy.1 As you might expect, museums rely on a talented team of dedicated professionals to run smoothly and to continue serving the public.
If you’re passionate about history, you might consider pursuing a career in the museum field, such as the role of museum curator. This career guide explains how to become a museum curator, from high school through graduate school.
What Does a Museum Curator Do?
A museum curator is responsible for the acquisition, safe storage and exhibition of items in the museum. A day in the life of a museum curator can look significantly different from one museum to the next. At small institutions, a museum curator may be expected to wear many hats, perhaps even serving as the museum director in addition to curator.
However, at large museums, a curator may focus solely on overseeing the collections. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a large museum to have multiple curators who are responsible for overseeing different fields. For instance, at a natural history museum, one curator may oversee the hall of mammals, while another oversees the fish or birds hall.
Museum curators have the opportunity to specialize in a particular field that interests them. If you are passionate about history, you can pursue a career working at history museums. There are also curators who specialize in art acquisition.
Although a museum curator’s responsibilities depend largely on the type of institution they work for, their tasks may include any of the following:
- Negotiate for the exchange or loan of collections from other institutions, and authorize the purchase of items and collections
- Ensure that all of the museum’s items are being stored properly
- Research collections, validate their authenticity and categorize items in the collections
- Design exhibits, including selecting themes and choosing arrangements for the displays
- Plan and complete special research projects
- Clean historical artifacts, following all necessary protocols to ensure the items’ preservation and safety
- Handle administrative tasks, including recordkeeping
A museum curator will also typically attend various meetings and other events intended to promote the museum to the public and encourage visitors. A curator may also develop and conduct museum tours and workshops for the museum’s visitors. In addition, these professionals may hold a supervisory position, directing and overseeing interns and other staff members.
Continuing education and professional development are crucial for museum workers. Museum curators may routinely attend professional conferences and academic panels while representing their institution. In addition to providing opportunities for professional development, these events enable museum curators to network with other museum workers, thereby building connections that can prove critical for negotiating the loan of a collection.
Essential Skills and Traits of a Museum Curator
Along with completing your formal education and on-the-job training, you can become a more effective museum curator by actively cultivating certain skills and traits. Museum curators can benefit from having the following:
- Curiosity and a commitment to lifelong learning
- Creativity (for the design of exhibits)
- Attention to detail
- Recordkeeping and organization skills
- Communication skills
A customer service mindset is also helpful. Museum curators must frequently interact with members of the public, helping them learn about the exhibits and answering questions. In addition, museum curators are often responsible for writing grant proposals and conducting other fundraising activities; as such, public relations skills and writing abilities are important.
Preparing for a Museum Curator Career in High School
Now that you have an idea of what museum curators do, you may already have your mind set on pursuing this career. You can begin the process of becoming a museum curator in high school. Talk to your high school guidance counselor about your career aspirations and discuss ways of adjusting your course load to better suit your goals.
Although your high school might not offer classes in museum studies or archaeology, you’ll still be able to take plenty of courses that are relevant to this career field. Some useful courses include the following:
- Art history/art studies
- U.S. and world history
- Chemistry (curators can benefit from chemistry competencies because they may need to conduct scientific analyses of historical artifacts)
- Foreign language
- Business management
Classes in business management and entrepreneurship might not appear to be relevant to this career field; however, keep in mind that museum curators must often manage interns and other staff members. Managerial and project management skills learned from these types of classes can prove invaluable.
After high school, you will need to earn a bachelor’s degree that supports your career goals. Some smaller institutions may hire entry-level museum curators who possess only a bachelor’s degree. However, it is far more common for these professionals to hold a master’s degree as well, and some of them also have a doctoral degree.
Pursuing Your Undergraduate History Degree
After high school, the first step in the process of how to become a museum curator is to earn a bachelor’s degree. When you imagine your own pathway toward becoming a museum curator, you might automatically assume that you’ll need a degree in museum studies. However, there is considerable flexibility regarding the type of degree you can earn.
The type of degree program you should enroll in depends largely on your particular specialization interests. For instance, if you think you’d prefer to work in an art museum, then majoring in art history or art studies would be a good choice. Other degree options include archaeology or public administration.
One popular choice is the ever-versatile history degree. If you aren’t quite sure about your specialization preferences yet, then a history degree is a solid choice that will enable you to develop foundational knowledge in the field. Of course, a history degree is also a suitable choice for students who are passionate about history and would like to specialize in working with historical collections.
Some schools may offer history degrees with a particular concentration. Alternatively, you can opt for a general history degree without a specialization. The curriculum will vary from one school to the next, but in general, you can expect to study topics such as the following:
- Historical research methodologies and critical thinking within historical contexts
- The cultural, political and economic factors that have influenced world civilizations
- Major developments and time periods in U.S. history, from colonial days to the 21st century
- Social, economic and political issues pertaining to various wars and revolutions
- The experiences of women throughout history in various cultures and geographical regions
You will likely have the opportunity to take a few electives during your time in college, and you might elect to take additional courses in history or art history. However, because museum curators are often involved with the management and promotion of their institutions, courses in marketing, public relations or public administration would also be good choices.
Although it may not be required, knowledge of a foreign language can be an asset. The language you choose to learn should mirror your historical interests. For instance, you could learn German or French if you’re interested in the World Wars, or Spanish if you’re interested in Spanish-speaking cultures.
Do You Need a Master's Degree for a Museum Career?
After earning your bachelor’s degree, the next step in the process of becoming a museum curator is to earn your master’s degree. Although some curators may find a position at a small institution with just a bachelor’s degree, it’s standard for these professionals to have a graduate degree. This is particularly true for curators who plan to pursue careers at larger institutions and those who aspire to higher-level positions.
If you earned a general history degree as an undergraduate, then you may wish to choose a narrower focus for your master’s degree. For instance, you might wish to earn a master’s degree in museum studies, archival studies or history with a concentration in a specific geographical region or time period.
Like undergraduate degrees in the humanities and social sciences, it’s entirely possible to complete your master’s degree 100% online for your convenience. While pursuing your master’s, you can generally expect to take classes that focus more narrowly on your chosen specialization, in contrast to undergraduate courses, which typically have a broader scope. It is also customary to complete a master’s thesis, which is a lengthy research paper.
Acquiring Real-World Experience in the Museum Field
In addition to their time spent in the classroom, future museum curators can greatly benefit from acquiring real-world experience, including on-the-job training and internships. This is especially true of students who earn degrees that do not specifically focus on museum studies or archival studies.
As early as high school, you can begin looking for volunteer positions and internships at local museums, archives and historical associations. Continue to work part-time and at temporary internships at these types of organizations throughout your time as an undergraduate and graduate student. You’ll build invaluable professional connections that you can use as you pursue a career, and you’ll learn how to work effectively in these professional settings.
Should Aspiring Museum Workers Join a Professional Organization?
Joining a professional organization for museum workers is most definitely recommended, both for graduates and current students. These professional organizations typically offer many resources for their members, including career resources, job and internship boards, resource libraries, continuing education programs and access to professional conferences. The largest organization is the American Alliance of Museums, which offers student memberships. You may also wish to explore the following, depending on your particular interests:
- International Council of Museums
- New England Museum Association
- American Association for State and Local History
- Association of Children’s Museums
- National Association for Interpretation
- American Association of Museum Directors
- Visitor Studies Association
- Association of Art Museum Curators
Tips for Pursuing a Top Position at a National Institution
Opportunities for advancement at small museums can be somewhat limited for museum curators. When you’re ready to pursue a higher-level position, you might consider applying to a job at a national institution. However, in order to be considered for these senior positions, you’ll generally be expected to have at least five years of full-time field experience, plus a PhD.
Senior curators are also expected to have publishing credentials. Look for opportunities to publish your work in academic journals. For instance, you might publish excerpts of your PhD dissertation in these publications, in addition to the research you perform during the course of your job duties.
Is There a Demand for Museum Curators?
The agency charged with tracking U.S. employment data is the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Although the BLS does not release data for museum curators alone, it does offer employment statistics for the general category of curators, archivists and other museum workers. The job growth outlook for this category of professionals is quite robust.2
Related Careers to Consider
There are other careers within the museum world that you might wish to consider as you explore your options. For example, if you love the idea of working with historical records, you may wish to become an archivist. If you’re not sure that you want to earn a graduate degree, you could pursue a career as a museum technician. Learn more about these different career options below.
- Museum technician – These professionals have typically graduated with a bachelor’s degree, although some may possess a master’s degree. They are responsible for preparing items in the collections for storage or for display. They also prepare collections for transportation if they are to be loaned to other museums or returned from being on loan.
- Museum registrar – These professionals handle logistics for the museum. They manage insurance policies, oversee risk management protocols and arrange for the lending of collections.
- Museum conservator – Conservators are responsible for preserving and treating works of art, artifacts and specimens. Their goal is to minimize an item’s tendency toward deterioration and, if possible, to restore items to their original condition.
- Museum archivist – Archivists specialize in researching and preserving historical records and other significant documents. They may also conduct lectures and workshops for the public.
You can take the first step toward pursuing a rewarding career as a museum curator when you apply for enrollment at Grand Canyon University. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Art in History degree program, which explores major time periods, trends and complexities throughout U.S. and world history. Graduates will emerge with strong research and writing skills, which will serve them well as they pursue graduate-level education and various career pathways.
Click on the Request Info button at the top of your screen and take your first step toward pursuing a meaningful career in the museum field.
1American Alliance of Museums, Museum Facts & Data in February 2022.
2Covid-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on September 2021, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Archivists, Curators, and Museum Workers, retrieved on [03/08/2022].
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.