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What is a curator?

May 01, 2020 · 5 min read · By ASU Online
A curator is someone who selects and oversees the organization of things. Curators can work in many organizations, from national parks to research institutions. The essence of what a curator does can be the same across fields. Curators create interactive experiences that guests find educational and inspiring. This means gathering and storing fragile items like old documents, statues, coins and more.

A career as a curator

Curators manage a wide range of exhibits on behalf of their employer. Some institutions allow curators to focus on the themes and time periods they are most familiar with. Curators' skills must include attention to detail, people skills and large-scale planning. Curators must also collaborate with others to coordinate new acquisitions and research projects.

To be a successful museum curator career, you will need technical knowledge, professional experience and understand the subject matter. An online Master of Arts in history can help you build a foundation in research methods, oral history and interpretive frameworks. These skills may help you find a full-time curator position at a variety of organizations.

A museum curator plans a new exhibit.

A day in the life of a curator

Most curator careers feature diverse job descriptions, from administrative duties to exhibit-building activities. For example, curators are usually responsible for collecting, maintaining and protecting valuable items. They also direct marketing campaigns, plan fundraising events and often take the lead on grant writing projects.

One of the most important parts of what a curator does is to inspire an emotional connection with the past. They do this through the themed presentation of artifacts, artworks and visual storytelling. To do this, curators make exhibit descriptions, promotional resources and audio tracks for self-guided tours. If you’re interested in pursuing a museum curator career, some of your tasks may include:

  • Acquiring, storing and exhibiting historical collections.
  • Assessing the authenticity of obtained artifacts.
  • Managing personnel.
  • Designing, organizing and conducting tours and workshops.
  • Planning and directing special research projects.

Curators tend to have the final word on the theme and design of public exhibits. Curators 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 a curator’s day-to-day responsibilities. This is especially true when they are serving in a promotional capacity. Curators regularly attend meetings and civic events to promote new presentations and discoveries. This means public speaking experience may also be necessary for success.

How much do curators make? Salary and career details

The median salary for curators fell to $53,780 in 2018, according to O*Net Online. Large institutions with many exhibits typically offer a higher pay rate.

Curators can supervise exhibits and collections for museums, art galleries, government agencies and libraries. Still, there are some opportunities to work with private collectors. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 14% job growth for curators between 2016 and 2026. This growth is faster than average for all occupations. This positive outlook for museum curator jobs is because of increased public interest in history and culture.

Hiring managers often look for candidates with a master’s degree in history, museum studies, fine arts or other related subjects. They also look for relevant professional experience. Many recruiters look for applicants who have supervisor experience. This is not a firm requirement, though.


Becoming a curator

In addition to project management and visual storytelling skills, successful curators have abilities. These abilities help them excel in high-level administrative roles. This profession includes responsibilities beyond the planning and presentation of historical collections. Below are some of the other unique qualities that curators often possess:

  • Initiative: Curators track down historical artifacts to expand their institution’s collection. This can take time, effort and persistence. You must be able to determine whether an item will be a valuable addition and take decisive action.
  • Interpersonal abilities: Curators frequently collaborate with a range of internal and external parties. This includes directors and trustees to journalists and government officials. Effective communication and a positive disposition are essential to a museum curator career. That's because maintaining relationships is often a core part of the job.
  • Creativity: Designing new exhibits that offer fresh perspectives requires both 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 an organization. It can also build upon the public’s understanding of important topics in history.
  • Organization: Curators oversee many aspects of their institution’s back-end operations. This usually entails delegating tasks, directing special events and more. These administrative responsibilities may call for strong management proficiencies and systematic thinking.

A curator degree: Study history to focus on a museum curator career

The ASU Online Master of Arts in history can help you develop the historical and technical knowledge you need to succeed as a curator. You can learn how to design engaging presentations and produce effective public communications. You can also learn how to leverage frameworks and methods of interpretation to create educational exhibits.

Interested in pursuing a museum curator career? The history master's degree is a great learning opportunities for this career track. You can study communicating history in the public sphere, oral history, public history methodology and more. The courses in the history program are flexible so you can focus on subjects that interest you.

During an MA in history program, you may be able to select courses that align with your personal interests and occupational goals. Most programs offer core courses in North American and European history, historical methods and global studies. Specialized electives may cover specific time 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 modern labor market, it’s important to gain the right skills, experience and knowledge to give yourself a competitive advantage. This makes a graduate education a valuable resource for achieving long-term success.

ASU Online – Online Master of Arts in History
Archivists, Curators, and Museum Workers by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Curators by O*Net Online
Curator by Princeton Review
Career: Curators by College Board
Curator as Catalyst: How an interdisciplinary fellowship inspired “a new way of doing museum” by American Alliance of Museums

A museum curator examines art for a new exhibit.


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