Museum director

,  12 March 2013

The director supervises staff, managing and overseeing all work. They set targets, check policies and budgets and act as chief curator.

Geffrye curatorial staff talk to young people outside the victorian room. Image: Geffrye Museum - Spencer Griffiths
Geffrye curatorial staff talk to young people outside the victorian room. Image: Geffrye Museum - Spencer Griffiths

What do they do?

The director of any company oversees everything that happens within that organisation. They supervise the rest of the staff, acting as their manager. They ensure that policies, budgets and goals are made and kept. 

In a museum, the director is effectively the chief curator. They have to make sure everything is ready and working for the public. They will have final say on the exhibits and displays, working with the other curators and staff.

They also help the museum reach out to the public and to academics, by arranging tours, research, funding and education programmes.

Finally, the director will have to report back to the governing body of the museum, showing that everything is going well.  

What is the job like?

Directing a museum means regularly meeting with people from all departments to make sure that everything is running smoothly. 

You need to make sure your staff are a working team. This needs diplomacy and confidence.

As well as listening to their ideas and checking that their projects are going well, you also have to manage the finances of the museum.

This means working with the marketing department and helping decide on the look of marketing materials.

It also means working with the fundraising teams, telling them how much they need to raise and helping them decide how to raise it.

Leading a team

As a manager, you are the team leader for the museum.

You’ll need lots of creative and fresh ideas about how to run the museum. You set the overall missions and goals and ensure they are met.

Taking responsibility

Anything that affects the museum’s public profile, good or bad, is your responsibility.

This means you need to be excellent with other people. Not only at listening to them and understanding their ideas, but also at talking to them to make sure your decisions are heard and respected.

You also need to make sure your staff are a working team. This needs diplomacy and confidence in your own decisions.

You can expect long and varied days.  As director, you will probably be the first person to arrive and the last to leave most of the time, including attending evening or weekend events.

How do I become a museum director?

To be a museum director, you would likely need at least six years of previous experience working in museums in various capacities.

You need to know how a museum works. It’s very rare for someone who hasn’t worked in a museum to become a museum director. Some directors start as curators. Some begin as assistant director. Others start in other positions entirely and work up through the ranks, beginning as a cataloguer or a researcher.

Financial understanding

Due to the financial responsibilities, you will need an understanding of fundraising and business. Most museums are non-profit organisations, so experience working for charities can be valuable. As the manager for a team, management training and skills are also very useful.

Heritage work is a very competitive field. It’s vital to start getting experience early, usually as a volunteer. The Museums Journal, a UK publication, has a good careers section where volunteer positions are advertised.

What qualifications and training do I need?

You need to have a degree in the particular field that your museum covers, so for a history museum you would be expected to have a degree in history.

Many museum directors have a postgraduate degree in their field as well. This could be a PGCE, diploma or Masters degree. A common choice is museum studies, which is often considered an entry level qualification for any career in museums or galleries.

Some people study for this after they start working, though. Leicester University has a distance learning course that is well respected. 

NVQ levels 2-5 in visitor services are available, but you need to have a museum- or heritage-based job to work towards them.

The Museums Association (MA) offers an Associateship of the Museums Association (AMA). This takes two years to achieve and shows a high level of dedication and experience, often required for a director’s position. The MA’s website also offers excellent guidance for museum careers.

How much can I earn?

The size of your salary depends greatly on the size of the museum and how well funded it is.

For a very small, independent museum, you could earn between £18,000 to £20,000 a year. For a large national museum, you could earn £70,000 to £90,000 a year.

However, heritage work is on the whole not well paid, and most positions have a salary of under £30,000.


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