12 March 2013

Curators are responsible for managing and developing the collection, making sure it is kept and displayed appropriately.

Curators are responsible for the development of the collection, right the way to the final display. Image: RBG Kew.
Curators are responsible for the development of the collection, right the way to the final display. Image: RBG Kew.

What does a curator do?

Curators look after collections of historical items or art works. They are responsible for managing and developing the collection, making sure it is kept and displayed appropriately. They also make sure the collection is made available to people who want to see it or study it.

Their duties can include:

  • cataloguing the collection, usually digitally
  • ensuring items are stored and displayed in the correct conditions
  • developing the collection by acquiring new items and borrowing items from other collections
  • researching the collection, to understand its historical and social context
  • planning and creating exhibitions
  • interpreting collections so they appeal to a wide range of visitors.

Depending on the collection, visitors may be members of the public or professional experts and researchers, or both.

Other parts of the job can include:

  • marketing and PR
  • fundraising
  • education programmes
  • budgeting.

Curators may also manage staff such as curatorial assistants and, sometimes, volunteers.

Some curators, particularly in university or other academic collections, may do some teaching and/or academic research.

In a large museum or heritage organisation, a curator may look after a particular part of the collection. In a smaller museum, they may look after the entire collection. Many curators are specialists in a particular type of object or collection such as scientific or medical or from a particular period such as Roman or Ancient Egyptian.

Most curators work indoors. Some may spend time outside, particularly at heritage sites with outdoor areas.

How do I become a curator?

You must have:

  • a real interest in heritage or art and be able to demonstrate your interest by studying it
  • good communication skills and a flair for communicating your love of your subject
  • good attention to detail and organisational skills
  • the ability to work to budgets and deadlines.

You may have, or develop, an interest in a specialist area of heritage work. This could be historical documents, for example, or art of a particular type or in a historical period.

You have to be willing to continue learning throughout your career.

You must demonstrate a real interest in heritage or art.

Nowadays, it helps to have good commercial awareness and business skills. All heritage collections and venues have to raise money and bid for funding. Their commercial activities are an important source of funds.

Training and qualifications

Most curators have a degree. This is usually in a subject which relates to their area of interest. This could be, for example, history of art, arts or heritage management, museum studies or archaeology. Many curators also have a Masters or PhD, again in a specialist area.

Gaining experience

Like much heritage work, this is a very competitive area to get into so it is essential to get as much experience as possible. Either paid or voluntary work will help you to build up your knowledge and your skills. Most museums and heritage sites welcome volunteers (although there can be competition for these opportunities as well).

Cultural and heritage apprenticeships may offer a way into curating work. You would still need to gain qualifications at degree level.

Even once you have a degree or postgraduate qualification, you may find it hard to get a curating job. You may have to work as a museum assistant or in visitor services.

After your degree, with suitable experience, you could start as an assistant curator. You could then study for a Masters or PhD, either during a career break or by part-time or distance learning.

There are curator development programmes at some of the large national museums, including:

Next steps in a curator's career

As you build up experience, you can apply for curator posts. You may be developing a specialism and applying for jobs related to this.

With experience, a curator can move into a management post in a museum or heritage organisation. They could then move on to become a deputy director or director.

Many curators change employers to gain experience or to work with larger or more prestigious collections.

Curators may have opportunities to work overseas. With experience and specialist knowledge, curators can become freelance.

What will I earn?

Earnings vary between employers. An assistant curator earns from £18,000 to around £23,000. A curator can earn up to around £30,000.

A head of department in a major museum could earn £35,000 to £45,000. Deputy directors and directors can earn £50,000 or more, with directors of national museums earning over £150,000.

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