Working as a Curator

What Does a Curator Do

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.

Duties

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  • Authenticate and appraise historical documents and archival materials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.

How To Become a Curator

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.

Education

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.

Other Experience

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.

Advancement

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.

Important Qualities

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.

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Average Salary$55,046
Job Growth Rate9%

Curator Jobs

Curator Career Paths

Top Careers Before Curator
Artist7.4 %
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Top Careers After Curator
Artist10.0 %
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Average Salary for a Curator

Curators in America make an average salary of $55,046 per year or $26 per hour. The top 10 percent makes over $101,000 per year, while the bottom 10 percent under $29,000 per year.
Average Salary
$55,046

Best Paying Cities

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University of Wisconsin Madison
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University of Michigan
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Curator Demographics

Gender

Female

54.4 %

Male

38.9 %

Unknown

6.6 %
Ethnicity

White

60.0 %

Hispanic or Latino

16.4 %

Black or African American

10.6 %
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Foreign Languages Spoken

Spanish

35.0 %

French

19.4 %

German

9.4 %
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Curator Education

Schools

New York University

14.7 %

School of Visual Arts

6.9 %

Columbia University

5.8 %

Michigan State University

5.0 %
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Majors

Fine Arts

32.4 %

Photography

7.3 %

History

6.3 %

Graphic Design

6.2 %
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Degrees

Bachelors

54.9 %

Masters

29.7 %

Associate

4.9 %

High School Diploma

3.5 %
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Entry Level Jobs For Becoming A Curator

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Full Time
Part Time
Internship
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Top Skills For a Curator

The skills section on your resume can be almost as important as the experience section, so you want it to be an accurate portrayal of what you can do. Luckily, we've found all of the skills you'll need so even if you don't have these skills yet, you know what you need to work on. Out of all the resumes we looked through, 27.1% of curators listed local artists on their resume, but soft skills such as analytical skills and technical skills are important as well.

Best States For a Curator

Some places are better than others when it comes to starting a career as a curator. The best states for people in this position are Alaska, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Curators make the most in Alaska with an average salary of $103,535. Whereas in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, they would average $78,634 and $77,580, respectively. While curators would only make an average of $76,823 in Connecticut, you would still make more there than in the rest of the country. We determined these as the best states based on job availability and pay. By finding the median salary, cost of living, and using the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Location Quotient, we narrowed down our list of states to these four.

1. Alaska

Total Curator Jobs:
1
Highest 10% Earn:
$155,000
Location Quotient:
5.72
Location Quotient is a measure used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to determine how concentrated a certain industry is in a single state compared to the nation as a whole. You can read more about how BLS calculates location quotients here

2. Rhode Island

Total Curator Jobs:
1
Highest 10% Earn:
$157,000
Location Quotient:
2.94
Location Quotient is a measure used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to determine how concentrated a certain industry is in a single state compared to the nation as a whole. You can read more about how BLS calculates location quotients here

3. Connecticut

Total Curator Jobs:
5
Highest 10% Earn:
$154,000
Location Quotient:
4.11
Location Quotient is a measure used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to determine how concentrated a certain industry is in a single state compared to the nation as a whole. You can read more about how BLS calculates location quotients here
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Curator Resumes

Designing and figuring out what to include on your resume can be tough, not to mention time-consuming. That's why we put together a guide that is designed to help you craft the perfect resume for becoming a curator. If you're needing extra inspiration, take a look through our selection of templates that are specific to your job.

At Zippia, we went through countless curator resumes and compiled some information about how best to optimize them. Here are some suggestions based on what we found, divided by the individual sections of the resume itself.

Learn How To Write a Curator Resume

At Zippia, we went through countless curator resumes and compiled some information about how best to optimize them. Here are some suggestions based on what we found, divided by the individual sections of the resume itself.

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Top Curator Employers

1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
4.7
Avg. Salary: 
$42,116
Curators Hired: 
12+
2. Rainforest Cafe
4.0
Avg. Salary: 
$30,243
Curators Hired: 
7+
3. Gilt Groupe
4.8
Avg. Salary: 
$56,464
Curators Hired: 
6+
4. Weston
4.3
Avg. Salary: 
$48,456
Curators Hired: 
5+
5. California College of the Arts
4.3
Avg. Salary: 
$46,367
Curators Hired: 
4+
6. Fort Wayne Community Schools
4.4
Avg. Salary: 
$37,308
Curators Hired: 
4+

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