Archivists appraise, process, catalog, and preserve permanent records and historically valuable documents. Curators oversee collections of artwork and historic items, and may conduct public service activities for an institution. Museum technicians and conservators prepare and restore objects and documents in museum collections and exhibits.
Archivists typically do the following:
- Authenticate and appraise historical documents and archival materials
- Preserve and maintain documents and objects
- Create and manage system to maintain and preserve electronic records
- Organize and classify archival records to make them easy to search through
- Safeguard records by creating film and digital copies
- Direct workers who help arrange, exhibit, and maintain collections
- Set and administer policy guidelines concerning public access to materials
- Provide help to users
- Find and acquire new materials for their archives
Curators, museum technicians, and conservators typically do the following:
- Acquire, store, and exhibit collections
- Select the theme and design of exhibits
- Design, organize, and conduct tours and workshops for the public
- Attend meetings and civic events to promote their institution
- Clean objects such as ancient tools, coins, and statues
- Direct and supervise curatorial, technical, and student staff
- Plan and conduct special research projects
Archivists preserve documents and records for their importance or historical significance. They coordinate educational and public outreach programs, such as tours, workshops, lectures, and classes. They also may work with researchers on topics and items relevant to their collections.
Some archivists specialize in an era of history so they can have a better understanding of the records from that period.
Archivists typically work with specific forms of records, such as manuscripts, electronic records, websites, photographs, maps, motion pictures, and sound recordings.
Curators, also known as museum directors, direct the acquisition, storage, and exhibition of collections, including negotiating and authorizing the purchase, sale, exchange, and loan of collections. They may authenticate, evaluate, and categorize the specimens in a collection.
Curators often oversee and help conduct their institution’s research projects and related educational programs. They may represent their institution in the media, at public events, at conventions, and at professional conferences.
Some curators who work in large institutions may specialize in a particular field, such as botany, art, or history. For example, a large natural history museum might employ separate curators for its collections of birds, fish, insects, and mammals.
Some curators focus primarily on taking care of their collections, others on researching items in their collections, and still others spend most of their time performing administrative tasks. In small institutions with only one or a few curators, one curator may be responsible for a number of tasks, from taking care of collections to directing the affairs of the museum.
Museum technicians, commonly known as registrars or collections specialists, concentrate on the care and safeguarding of the objects in museum collections and exhibitions. They oversee the logistics of acquisitions, insurance policies, risk management, and loaning of objects to and from the museum for exhibition or research. They keep detailed records of the conditions and locations of the objects that are on display, in storage, or being transported to another museum. They also maintain and store any documentation associated with the objects.
Museum technicians also may answer questions from the public and help curators and outside scholars use the museum’s collections.
Conservators handle, preserve, treat, and keep records of works of art, artifacts, and specimens—work that may require substantial historical, scientific, and archeological research. They document their findings and treat items to minimize deterioration or to restore them to their original state. Conservators usually specialize in a particular material or group of objects, such as documents and books, paintings, decorative arts, textiles, metals, or architectural material.
Some conservators use x rays, chemical testing, microscopes, special lights, and other laboratory equipment and techniques to examine objects, determine their condition, and decide on the best way to preserve them. They also may participate in outreach programs, research topics in their specialty, and write articles for scholarly journals.
Most archivist, curator, and conservator positions require a master’s degree related to the position’s field. Museum technicians must have a bachelor’s degree. People often gain experience through an internship or by volunteering in archives and museums.
Archivists. Archivists typically need a master’s degree in history, library science, archival science, political science, or public administration. Although many colleges and universities have history, library science, or other similar programs, only a few institutions offer master’s degrees in archival studies. Students may gain valuable archiving experience through volunteer or internship opportunities.
Curators. Curators typically need a master’s degree in art history, history, archaeology, or museum studies. Students with internship experience may have an advantage in the competitive job market.
In small museums, curator positions may be available to applicants with a bachelor’s degree. Because they also may have administrative and managerial responsibilities, courses in business administration, public relations, marketing, and fundraising are recommended.
Museum technicians. Museum technicians, commonly known as registrars, typically need a bachelor’s degree. Because few schools offer a bachelor’s degree in museum studies, it is common for registrars to obtain an undergraduate degree in a related field, such as art history, history, or archaeology. Some jobs may require candidates to have a master’s degree in museum studies. Museums may prefer candidates with knowledge of the museum’s specialty, training in museum studies, or previous experience working in museums.
Conservators. Conservators typically need a master’s degree in conservation or in a closely related field. Graduate programs last 2 to 4 years, the latter years of which include internship training. Only a few graduate programs in museum conservation techniques are offered in the United States. To qualify for entry into these programs, a student must have a background in chemistry, archaeology, studio art, or art history. Completing a conservation internship as an undergraduate can enhance admission prospects.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
At this time, only a few employers require or prefer certification for archivists. However, archivists may choose to earn voluntary certification because it allows them to demonstrate expertise in a particular area.
The Academy of Certified Archivists offers the Certified Archivist credential. To earn certification, candidates must have a master’s degree, have professional archival experience, and pass an exam. They must renew their certification periodically by retaking the exam or fulfilling continuing education credits.
To gain marketable experience, candidates may have to work part time, as an intern or as a volunteer, during or after completing their education. Substantial experience in collection management, research, exhibit design, or restoration, as well as database management skills, is necessary for full-time positions.
Continuing education is available through meetings, conferences, and workshops sponsored by archival, historical, and museum associations. Some large organizations, such as the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC, offer in-house training.
Top museum positions are highly sought after and are competitive. Performing unique research and producing published work are important for advancement in large institutions. In addition, a doctoral degree may be needed for some advanced positions.
Museum workers employed in small institutions may have limited opportunities for promotion. They typically advance by transferring to a larger institution that has supervisory positions.
Analytical skills. Archivists, curators, museum technicians, and conservators need excellent analytical skills to determine the origin, history, and importance of many of the objects they work with.
Computer skills. Archivists and museum technicians should have good computer skills because they use and develop complex databases related to the materials they store and access.
Customer-service skills. Archivists, curators, museum technicians, and conservators work with the general public on a regular basis. They must be courteous and friendly and be able to help users find materials.
Organizational skills. Archivists, curators, museum technicians, and conservators must be able to store and easily retrieve records and documents. They must also develop logical systems of storage for the public to use.
Technical skills. Many historical objects need to be analyzed and preserved. Conservators must use the appropriate chemicals and techniques to preserve different objects, such as documents, paintings, fabrics, and pottery.