Museums are often the first place where people are exposed to science, the arts, and history in an accessible setting. As such, museums serve a vitally important cultural role in society. And the museum curators who determine which exhibits to include play an essential role in shaping how we view our past and present.
Curators manage a wide range of exhibits on behalf of their institutions, and some museums allow curators to focus on the themes and periods with which they are most familiar. If you're wondering how to become a museum curator, it's important to note that curators' skills must include attention to detail, people skills and the ability to conduct large-scale planning. Curators must also collaborate with associates frequently to coordinate new acquisitions and research projects.
To be a successful curator, you’ll need technical knowledge, professional experience and an understanding of the subject matter. Studying history, either at the undergraduate or master's level, can give you a critical breadth of knowledge about the items a museum would want to display, as well as an understanding of how to communicate history effectively to a diverse audience. Once you've acquired this knowledge and sharpened your skills, you can pursue a full-time curator position at a variety of organizations.
What does a curator do?
Most curator careers feature diverse job descriptions, with duties that range from administrative work to exhibit building. For example, curators are usually responsible for collecting, maintaining and protecting valuable items on behalf of their museums. They may also direct marketing campaigns, plan fundraising events or take the lead on grant writing projects.
One of the most important aspects of what a curator does is inspiring an emotional connection with the past. They do this through themed presentation of artifacts, artwork and visual storytelling. Curators may also create exhibit descriptions, promotional resources and audio tracks for self-guided tours. The primary daily tasks of a museum curator may include:
- Acquiring, storing and exhibiting historical collections.
- Assessing the authenticity of obtained artifacts.
- Designing, organizing, and conducting tours and workshops.
- Managing personnel.
- Planning and directing special research projects.
Curators tend to have the final word on the theme and design of public exhibits but they collaborate with historians and other subject-matter experts during the planning phase. It is essential to illustrate the unique facets of every collection with the help of researchers and archivists. Effective written and verbal communication are also necessary to perform a curator's day-to-day responsibilities, especially when they are serving in a promotional capacity. Curators regularly attend meetings and civic events to promote new presentations and discoveries, so public speaking experience may be critical to success in the role as well.
How much do museum curators make?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the median annual salary for museum curators in 2021 was $60,110. Large institutions with many exhibits typically offer a higher pay rate — particularly institutions affiliated with organizations such as universities.
Curators can supervise exhibits and collections for museums, art galleries, government agencies and libraries. There are also some opportunities to work with private collectors. The BLS projects 19% job growth for a group that includes curators, archivists and museum workers between 2020 and 2030, a much faster rate than the average for all occupations. This positive outlook for museum curator jobs derives from increased public interest in history and culture.
A curator position typically requires postsecondary education, with an undergraduate degree often being a prerequisite. Hiring managers tend to look for candidates with a master's degree in history, museum studies, fine arts or another related subject. They also look for relevant professional experience and may prefer applicants with supervisory experience in particular, but this is not a firm requirement.
What skills does a curator need?
In addition to project management and visual storytelling skills, successful curators have a diverse set of abilities that help them accomplish a variety of high-level administrative tasks beyond planning and presenting historical collections. Some additional qualities and skills that applicants for a curator role should possess include:
- Initiative: Curators track down historical artifacts to expand their institutions' collections. This takes time, effort and persistence. You must be able to determine whether an item will be a valuable addition, and then take decisive action.
- Interpersonal abilities: Curators frequently collaborate with a number of internal and external parties. These can range from directors and trustees to journalists and government officials. Effective communication and a positive disposition are essential to a museum curator career, since maintaining relationships is often a core part of the job.
- Creativity: Curators often design new exhibits that offer fresh perspectives, which requires vision and imagination. That's why curators must leverage their creative problem-solving abilities during the planning phase. Developing original themes that excite and inform can help boost attendance at a museum, as well as generate greater interest and appreciation for important topics in history.
- Organization: Curators may oversee many aspects of their institutions' back-end operations, including delegating tasks and directing special events. These administrative responsibilities call for strong management proficiencies and systematic thinking.
What degree does a museum curator need?
If you think a curator may be a role for you, check out ASU Online's Bachelor of Arts in history to take a crucial first step in learning how to become a museum curator. An undergraduate degree in history will expose you to vital context around the objects and displays you would be working with as a curator. You'll also be able to see how historians present history, and learn how to communicate historical information effectively — important skills for any curator to possess.
If you already have a bachelor's degree, ASU Online's Master of Arts in history can help you develop the historical and technical knowledge you'll need to succeed as a curator at a more advanced level and may give you a leg up in the job market. Through the program, you can also learn how to leverage frameworks and methods of interpretation to create educational exhibits.
Earning a degree, whether a bachelor's or a master's, is important for anyone pursuing a curator career. Areas of study include communicating history in the public sphere, oral history and public history methodology. The courses in the history program are flexible, so you can focus on subjects that interest you.
Both the BA and MA in history degree programs offer courses that align with your personal interests and occupational goals. The programs offer core courses in global studies, historical methods and North American and European history. Specialized electives cover specific periods, locations and events. From these courses, you can gain the historical awareness and cultural proficiencies you need to build exhibits for modern audiences.
In the current labor market, it's important to gain the right skills, experience and knowledge to give yourself a competitive advantage. On the museum curator career track, a university education can be a valuable resource for achieving long-term success.