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Museum Curator
Significant Points

Curators administer museums, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, nature centers, and historic sites. The museum director often is a curator. Curators direct the acquisition, storage, and exhibition of collections, including negotiating and authorizing the purchase, sale, exchange, or loan of collections. They are also responsible for authenticating, evaluating, and categorizing the specimens in a collection. Curators often oversee and help conduct the institution's research projects and related educational programs. Today, an increasing part of a curator's duties involves fundraising and promotion, which may include the writing and reviewing of grant proposals, journal articles, and publicity materials, as well as attendance at meetings, conventions, and civic events.

Most curators specialize in a particular field, such as botany, art, paleontology, or history. Those working in large institutions may be highly specialized. A large natural history museum, for example, would employ separate curators for its collections of birds, fishes, insects, and mammals. Some curators maintain their collections, others do research, and others perform administrative tasks. In small institutions with only one or a few curators, one curator may be responsible for a number of tasks, from maintaining collections to directing the affairs of the museum.

Nature of the Work

The purposes of museums -- The concept of a museum as a place of scholarly study dates back to the ancients. The collection and preservation of Nature's curious objects or of Man's artifacts as a concept of museum function is of far more recent origin, developing, as modern public museums developed, in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The notion of a museum as a place to display collections of curios, artifacts, specimens or other interesting material is of quite modern origin, and more recent still is the idea of the public museum's responsibility to general education. Artistic display of selected items, rather than the amassing and display of large quantities of similar items, is in keeping with the modern trend. Disposal of surplus specimens to reduce a collection to manageable size is coming to the fore as a highly technical phase of museum curating.

It is helpful in understanding the wide variations in professional work done in museums to think of museums as "libraries of objects." Although there are important differences and the analogy should not be carried too far, certain institutional similarities between museums and libraries are worth mentioning in establishing a frame of reference broad enough to accommodate extremely divergent museum assignments.

Like libraries, museums can be large or small, generalized and multi-purposed, or specialized and technical. Like libraries, they service both scholars and laymen, provide both information and entertainment and -- in aggregate -- serve as repositories for society's knowledge. The wide variety of technique related to the care, restoration and preservation of objects, however, is peculiar to the museum. Moreover, unlike library science, the techniques of acquisitioning, cataloging, storing, and displaying objects, and the methods of museum management have not been standardized into formal disciplines and incorporated into formal college courses of training and education. On the other hand, procedures for these activities may be well established and standardized within a particular Government agency.

The functions of museums -- The four conceptual cornerstones of modern public museums -- research, collection, exhibits, and education -- forming an interdependent circle of responsibility, are inherent in all professional museum work. Any understanding of curatorial activities, therefore, must be founded on a clear understanding of these basic functions.

Research -- The research carried on in museums of the Federal Government varies greatly. For purposes of this discussion these activities may be grouped into three general categories identified as (a) scholarly research, (b) technical research, and (c) applied research.

"Scholarly" research is that study and investigation that contributes to the sum of Man's knowledge. In museums, this type of research is typically (though not necessarily) related to the collections of objects, artifacts or specimens that distinguish museums from other types of research institutions.

In some cases, the research effort is directed to the collection itself. Efforts to classify and document collection material, to establish or expand taxonomic systems for collected specimens or objects, or to fit new material into established systems, are examples of this type of research. Study of objects or series of objects to determine their relationships or their implications, and to discover their significance within the general field of knowledge is also representative. In other instances, the collection material is used as one of the sources of data for research in a scientific or historical area of investigation; and, in still others, the expanding of the size and significance of the collection may be a corollary of scholarly research.

Depending on the nature of the field of study, scholarly research in museums may be done by scientists, by historians, or by curators. It is characterized by the use of accepted scholarly methodology and it frequently results in the publication of "learned" papers.

"Technical" research is the study and innovation necessary to the restoration and preservation of specimens, artifacts, or objects of the collection. These techniques differ from one type of collection to another, not only in kind but in the degree of standardization of method that has been established. Increased knowledge about aging characteristics of materials and developing technology in the applied sciences are offering greater opportunities for research and improvisation, and there is a growing sense of responsibility to our posterity for the validity of the artifacts from the past that are being preserved.

The need for technical research varies greatly. Some objects require very little care and in some instances the best preservation methods have long since been established. For many collections, however, problems of halting deterioration, of restoring and preserving valuable or rare objects represent a major consideration and involve difficult and imaginative research. Research of this kind, when it is significant, often results in the publication of technical articles, but often it is of such a pragmatic nature and of such limited interest that the results are simply put to work on the problem that inspired it.

"Applied" research, as here used, refers to all of the investigation, collection and arrangement of information necessary to support the educational and public service responsibilities of museums. Such research rarely adds to the store of information on the frontiers of Man's knowledge. Its basic function is the distribution of knowledge to many minds. It is the searching for and arranging of information that supports the labels and explanatory material that accompanies each museum exhibit; it is the digging for and synthesizing of facts that will answer a public inquiry or identify an artifact or specimen; it is the locating and organization of data that is incorporated into popular publications, articles and pamphlets.

Such activities entail not only command of the sources of information and facility with the methods of orderly research, but ability to translate scientific language and concepts into clear and readable "layman" English.

"Site" museums -- those installations in the national parks, on military posts and in other locations where the museum serves as a "guidebook" to the area -- sometimes use the results of applied research performed by specialists who may be geographically and organizationally removed from the area. Collections -- Professional duties and responsibilities related to museum collections include the planning necessary to establish, develop and/or expand a collection and the arrangements for its documentation and physical preservation.

Duties vary from museum to museum and from one type of collection to another, but the responsibility of planning a "balanced" collection that is meaningful as a source of information for scholars and laymen, and of providing machinery for its physical care is common to all curatorial assignments.

In some cases, efforts to add to collections involve public relations duties, including contacts with persons or organizations who can contribute items to the collections or arrange for such donations, gifts and bequests. In other cases, these expansion responsibilities involve field work -- the actual physical collection of artifacts or specimens from the field. When budgets include funds for the purchase of material for collections the responsibilities of the curator include such duties as locating and appraising the material, negotiating of purchase agreements and related activities.

The management of a large and/or rare collection requires arrangements and machinery for lending and borrowing material with other museums or collections, correspondence with other curators and collectors, and often, as indicated above, research and professional writing resulting from study of the collection itself. Responsibilities for the preservation and storage of the collection involve knowledge of, research in, and planning of conservation techniques as well as the planning, establishment and maintenance of cataloging records and procedures, and of storage space and facilities.

Exhibits -- A museum exhibit represents a considerable investment in time, effort and money and, once established, is viewed as a semi-permanent installation. Assignments for developing new exhibits or for making major changes in existing ones (except in the case of certain specialized staff positions) are relatively infrequent. Typically, such assignments are of long duration, involving at least several months and often extending several years. Even though a professional museum position does not currently contain such an assignment, however, the responsibility for exhibits -- existing, planned or potential -- is inherent in professional museum jobs. Minor changes to keep exhibits as current and effective as possible and recommendations and planning for major changes are universal responsibilities.

The planning, designing and/or development of museum exhibits involve orderly research, the use of collections, and the application of effective educational methods. This activity, however, in addition to being thus closely integrated with the other functions of professional museum work, also carries special and unique demands of its own.

Every museum exhibit is the result of a series of judgments: the selection of the "story" to be told, the determination of the most effective method to tell it, the choice of what part of the collection to illustrate it, the decisions on the use of available space and budget. In addition to a thorough knowledge of the subject matter the exhibit purports to explain, this activity requires artistic ability, language facility, a "flair for the dramatic" and other intangible qualities inherent in teaching situations.

Education. -- Professional duties and responsibilities related to the educational function of the museum may include, in addition to the planning, establishment and maintenance of exhibits, writing, lecturing and teaching assignments.

The more successful the museum is in terms of interesting the public the greater are the demands for educational services. Conditions vary from museum to museum, but a partial list of such facilities would include: guide and docent activities; libraries of published material, film strips and slides; the preparation, publication and distribution of popular articles and informative pamphlets; and programs for "traveling" exhibits.

Occupational Patterns in Museums--In general, occupational patterns in museums follow the functional pattern -- research, collection, exhibit, and education. Thus, we find scientific occupations, positions of professional historians, positions related to collections, and occupations necessary to displays and public education, as well as managerial positions and a variety of nonprofessional supportive jobs.

Museum Curator, GS-1015-05

This is the basic trainee level. Work assignments are selected to provide orientation and training in the operation of the museum and in the sources and methodology of the research. The supervisor or a higher-level professional worker provides specific and detailed guidance in and review of the aspects of the work. Many of the individual duties may be similar to those done by technicians and other nonprofessional museum workers, and the distinguishing characteristic of assignments for museum curator positions at this level is variety in a pattern of work experience designed to provide training and to develop skills relative to the full scope of the museum function.

Curatorial assignments typically include tasks related to the routine procedures of managing the collection: the accessioning, labeling, recording and storing, packing or otherwise handling of collection material; the routine methods of restoration and preservation of objects or specimens. Also typical are such tasks as writing simple correspondence; simple housekeeping duties in maintenance of established exhibits; and routine filing and record keeping in libraries of pamphlets, films, slides and other material maintained for the information of the public.

Research duties typically include preparation of bibliographies, searching records for specific information, collecting and tabulating data from a variety of indicated sources, abstracting or summarizing information from source material or drafting factual answers to specific questions.

Museum Curator, GS-1015-07

This is the advanced trainee level. Incumbents, who have become proficient in the tasks related to the routine operation of the museum and to the sources and methods of research of the museum, are given additional assignments selected to provide a broadening and deepening experience and to develop qualities of discrimination, initiative and judgment.

Such assignments are accompanied by a detailed discussion of the purpose and scope of the work and any anticipated problems. The incumbents select sources, plan approach and outlines proposed methods. They then review and discuss these plans in detail with supervisor and receives approval and necessary instructions before proceeding. Each step of the work receives this detailed supervisory examination and final results are examined and evaluated carefully.

Individual assignments in both the curatorial and research areas of the position will be of a kind with those done by fully trained and competent professional workers in the field. The difference is that at this level assignments are small in scope and of short duration; they are assigned one at a time and in a specific training pattern; and each step and detail of the work is subject to close supervisory scrutiny. Incumbent's responsibility is limited to completion of each assignment and to acquiring the additional knowledge and maturity that such experiences offer.

Museum Curator, GS-1015-09

Two types of assignment patterns characterize this level of museum curator positions. The first is that of a professional assistant. Organizational titles sometimes designate such assignments as "Assistant Curator" or "Research Assistant." Typically, such positions are found in large museums or in large and complex organizational segments of museum institutions where the volume of the work and the variety of the operation necessitate the use of a professional staff under the direction of a responsible museum executive.

The duties and technical demands of such positions, the methodology used and the requirements for knowledge, initiative, imagination and judgment are of a professional level. The factor that distinguishes such assignments from the work done at the GS-11 level is primarily the nature and extent of supervisory controls. Incumbents of these positions are responsible for the quality and quantity of their own work within established policy, procedures and protocols or according to specific instructions, but are not accountable for the effective operation of the museum or for the planning, methodology, documentation, and orderly completion of scholarly research.

The other type of assignment characteristic of this level is that of a curator in charge of a very small, localized museum. In this situation, the position may be both physically and organizationally removed from immediate and direct supervision, and the incumbent's authority to act may be limited only by the general policies and procedures of the agency.

In this type of assignment, the factors that distinguish the work from that done at the GS-11 level are the type, nature and variety of the duties performed. The following conditions are typical:

1. Research assignments are rare and never involve the requisite degree of professional independence typical of GS-11.

2. The museum collection is both small and stable, and typically no expansion or development is required. Problems related to the care and protection of collection material are covered by procedures.

3. Duties related to exhibits are normally confined to maintenance and housekeeping functions.

4. Inquiries and correspondence from the public are usually nontechnical in nature. Authoritative answers on identification or authentication of collection items are not required.

Individual Occupational Requirements

Education and training. Although archivists earn a variety of undergraduate degrees, a graduate degree in history or library science with courses in archival science is preferred by most employers. Many colleges and universities offer courses or practical training in archival techniques as part of their history, library science, or other curriculum. A few institutions offer master's degrees in archival studies. Some positions may require knowledge of the discipline related to the collection, such as computer science, business, or medicine. There are many archives that offer volunteer opportunities where students can gain experience.

For employment as a curator, most museums require a master's degree in an appropriate discipline of the museum's specialty—art, history, or archaeology—or in museum studies. Some employers prefer a doctoral degree, particularly for curators in natural history or science museums. Earning two graduate degrees—in museum studies (museology) and a specialized subject—may give a candidate a distinct advantage in a competitive job market. In small museums, curatorial positions may be available to individuals with a bachelor's degree. Because curators, particularly those in small museums, may have administrative and managerial responsibilities, courses in business administration, public relations, marketing, and fundraising also are recommended. For some positions, an internship of full-time museum work supplemented by courses in museum practices is needed.

Curatorial positions often require knowledge in a number of fields. For historic and artistic conservation, courses in chemistry, physics, and art are desirable. Like archivists, curators need computer skills and the ability to work with electronic databases. Many curators are responsible for posting information on the Internet, so they also need to be familiar with digital imaging, scanning technology, and copyright law.

Curators must be flexible because of their wide variety of duties, including the design and presentation of exhibits. In small museums, curators need manual dexterity to build exhibits or restore objects. Leadership ability and business skills are important for museum directors, while marketing skills are valuable in increasing museum attendance and fundraising.

In large museums, curators may advance through several levels of responsibility, eventually becoming the museum director. Curators in smaller museums often advance to larger ones. Individual research and publications are important for advancement in larger institutions.

Job Outlook

Much faster than average employment growth is projected. Keen competition is expected for most jobs as archivists, curators, and museum technicians because qualified applicants generally outnumber job openings.

Employment change. Employment of archivists, curators, and museum technicians is expected to increase 20 percent over the 2008-18 decade, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. Jobs for archivists are expected to increase as public and private organizations require organization of and access to increasing volumes of records and information. Public interest in science, art, history, and technology will continue, creating opportunities for curators, conservators, and museum technicians. Museum attendance is expected to continue to be good. Many museums remain financially healthy and will schedule building and renovation projects as money is available.

Demand for archivists who specialize in electronic records and records management will grow more rapidly than the demand for archivists who specialize in older media formats.

Job prospects. Keen competition is expected for most jobs as archivists, curators, and museum technicians because qualified applicants generally outnumber job openings. Graduates with highly specialized training, such as master's degrees in both library science and history, with a concentration in archives or records management and extensive computer skills, should have the best opportunities for jobs as archivists. Opportunities for those who manage electronic records are expected to be better than for those who specialize in older media formats.

Curator jobs, in particular, are attractive to many people, and many applicants have the necessary training and knowledge of the subject. But because there are relatively few openings, candidates may have to work part time, as an intern, or even as a volunteer assistant curator or research associate after completing their formal education. Substantial work experience in collection management, research, exhibit design, or restoration, as well as database management skills, will be necessary for permanent status.

Conservators also can expect competition for jobs. Competition is stiff for the limited number of openings in conservation graduate programs, and applicants need a technical background. Conservator program graduates with knowledge of a foreign language and a willingness to relocate will have better job opportunities.

Museums and other cultural institutions can be subject to cuts in funding during recessions or periods of budget tightening, reducing demand for these workers. Although the number of archivists and curators who move to other occupations is relatively low, the need to replace workers who retire or leave the occupation will create some job openings. However, workers in these occupations tend to work beyond the typical retirement age of workers in other occupations.

Earnings

Median annual wages of curators in May 2008 were $47,220. The middle 50 percent earned between $34,910 and $63,940. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $26,850, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $83,290. In March 2009, the average annual salary for museum curators was $90,205.


Additional Sources

For general information about careers as a curator and schools offering courses in museum studies, contact:

  • American Association of Museums, 1575 Eye St. NW., Suite 400, Washington, DC 20005. Internet: http://www.aam-us.org

Information on obtaining Museum Curator positions with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Government's official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at http://www.usajobs.gov or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724–1850 or  (703) 724–1850  or TDD (978) 461–8404 and   (978) 461–8404. These numbers are not toll free, and charges may result. For advice on how to find and apply for Federal jobs, download the Insider's Guide to the Federal Hiring Process” online here.

Source: OPM's Position Classification Standards for White Collar Work

Last Modified Date: March 4, 2011

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