Museum curators acquire and protect museum collections and present these items to the public.
Curation often involves a wide and varied assortment of tasks including:
- Fundraising for the museum
- Creating educational materials associated with collections
- Authenticating items
- Designing exhibits
Curation requires both very deep and very broad expertise. Plus, the work can vary a lot, depending on the kind of museum.
Curators at art museums must be experts in art, art history, and art authentication and conservation. Curators at history museums must be historians. Curators at science museums must have had some scientific training.
But all types of curation share certain responsibilities, and therefore require consistent skills. Find out more about what it's like to work as a museum curator, along with the key skills necessary for this role.
How to Become a Museum Curator
Although the pay can sometimes be low, and the hours may be long and varied, curators often express very high levels of job satisfaction. People in this role work on subjects they are passionate about, and they know what they do makes a real difference to communities, and to society.
Some small, local museums may be curated by self-taught volunteers. Professional curation at galleries and museums, however, requires a master's degree in any of several relevant fields.
Students who have not yet completed their degrees often find work as assistant curators. These student internships can be critical to having a successful career later on, but often carry little or no pay.
To become a lead curator at a major museum, you'll often need both a Ph.D. and several years of field experience. The process can be long and difficult, and yet many curators did not set out to get into curation at all.
Many trained originally for some other career, such as scientific research or teaching, and discovered that they had become qualified for curation only when an opportunity became available.
Salary and Job Outlook
The average median wage for curators is $54,570, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The job outlook projects 11% growth, which is faster than that for all occupations.
Museum Curator Skills and Examples
Here is a list of the most valuable skills required for museum curation to use in resumes, cover letters, and job applications.
The technical skills required vary based on the kind of materials a museum collects. For example, the curator of an art museum would need to know how to authenticate paintings, while the curator of a natural history museum would need to know how to determine the age of fossils.
- Appraising Art
- Conservation Preventative Maintenance
- Conservation Treatment
- Exhibit Content Development
- Exhibit Development
- Exhibit Design
- Exhibit Implementation
- Exhibit Preparation
- Maintain Exhibit Calendar
- Staging Exhibits
Museum curators are responsible for learning as much about the collections as possible, so as to be able to take care of them properly and so as to be able to pass that information on to the public. Curators also need to be able to recognize whether an object is sufficiently important for the museum to acquire it, and whether the object is even genuine.
All of these tasks require strong research skills including both direct examination of the objects themselves, and extensive field research and reading.
Curators also have to partner with scientists or scholars who may be either working with the museum’s materials or preparing materials that the museum may want to either acquire or accept on loan.
- Collection Development
- Developing Interpretive Materials
- Educational Programming
- Detail Orientation
- Developing Budgets
- Developing Funding Proposals
- Evaluating Strengths and Weaknesses of Collections
- Soliciting Acquisitions
Written and Verbal Communication Skills
Communication plays a big part in curation. Not only must museum staff work well as a team, requiring good internal communication, but curators must both teach the public and reach out to potential donors.
Grant writing has become a significant part of the job since public funding for museums has dropped off in recent decades.
Writing for the public can include everything from creating specimen labels to producing pamphlets and even books.
Curators also either present talks on collections, or train and supervise those who take on this role. Even creating displays is a form of communication. Most communication with the public falls under the general category of interpretation skills.
- Active Listening
- Building Relationships with Constituents
- Community Outreach
- Conducting Tours
- Cultivating Donors
- Discrete with Confidential Information
- Donor Cultivation
- Fostering an Appreciation of Art
- Influencing Others
- Preparing Press Releases
- Public Programming
- Relationship Building
Major museums employ many curation staff. The lead curator must manage the entire team. That involves, for example, delegating, priority-setting, budgeting, coordinating, maintaining standards, and providing comprehensive training to new team members.
Creative problem-solving is important since anything from pest infestations to personnel disputes can potentially jeopardize a collection or the museum’s educational mission.
Many lead curators do very little direct work on the collections at all. Most of their time and energy goes into keeping track of what other team members are doing and ensuring that all necessary bases are covered.
- Acquisition Management
- Collection Management
- Establish Collection Management Policies
- Developing Procedures
- Manage Exhibits
- Motivating Others
There are a variety of related general skills that are beneficial to someone seeking a museum curator position. Take the time to match the skills the employer is seeking with your skill set, then highlight the most relevant skills in your resume and cover letter.
- Aesthetic Sensibility
- Monitoring Finances
- Orchestrating Events
- Project Management
- Record Keeping
- Recruiting Staff and Volunteers
- Strategic Thinking
- Working Independently
How to Make Your Skills Stand Out
ADD RELEVANT SKILLS TO YOUR RESUME: Take a look at the job advertisements for museum curators as well to see which skills are mentioned again and again. This type of thinking will help you know the skills you should emphasize in your resume.
HIGHLIGHT SKILLS IN YOUR COVER LETTER: It can be helpful to elaborate on key skills listed on your resume in your cover letter.
USE SKILL WORDS IN YOUR JOB INTERVIEW: Frequently, interviews are places for you to share scenarios where you demonstrated the skills required to be successful as a curatator, whether that's fundraising, leading a team, scoring an acquisition, or so on.