A museum director is equivalent to the chief executive officer of a corporation. The museum director is responsible for the daily operations of the museum, for long-term planning, policies, any research conducted within the museum, and for the museum’s fiscal health. Directors must also represent the museum at meetings with other museums, business and civic communities, and the museum’s governing body. Finally, directors ensure that museums adhere to state and federal guidelines for safety in the workplace and hiring practices, as well as industry recommendations concerning the acquisitions and care of objects within the museum.
Museum curators care for objects in a museum’s collection. The primary curatorial activities are maintenance, preservation, archiving, cataloging, study, and display of collection components. Curators must fund-raise to support staff in the physical care and study of collections. They also add to or alter a museum’s collection by trading objects with other museums or purchasing new pieces. They educate others through scholarly articles and public programs that showcase the items.
Museum Director and Curator Career History
More than any other museum workers, curators and directors are closely identified with the image and purposes of a museum, and the history of these positions has followed the fortunes of museums themselves.
Early precolonial and colonial museums were privately owned “cabinets of curios,” but occasionally they were attached to a library or philosophical society, which allowed restricted viewing to members only. As the cabinet evolved into the museum through organized collecting and increased public access, there simultaneously arose some confusion over the mission of a museum and how that mission might best be achieved. The goals of museums, even of the same museum over time, began to alternate between a professional concentration on acquiring and studying collections, with some indifference to the interests of the public, and a contrary focus on visitor education and entertainment that occasionally turned into spectacles and sideshows as museums sought to raise money by any means. According to Joel Orosz, museum historian and author of Curators and Culture: The Museum Movement in America, 1740-1870 (University of Alabama Press, 1990), the alternating between museum professionalism and public education marked the first long span of U.S. museum history, from about 1740 to 1870. By 1870, however, the two trends had blended together, which Orosz refers to as the American compromise: Both popular education and scholarly research would be held as equal, coexisting goals. This achievement, the author asserts, arose out of uniquely American conditions, prior to several decades of efforts by British and European museums to instate a similar mixture of goals, and permanently shaped the rest of U.S. museum history.
Orosz’s analysis divides early museum history into roughly 20-year periods, during which either professionalism or popular education was influential. With few exceptions, curators and museum directors were unable to find a neutral middle ground. In the early 1800s, with the rise of a middle class, the museum world assessed its purpose. As old supporters of the professional museums retired, new leaders began to associate their museums with public libraries and schools. Lecture series, pamphlets, and collection-based education became standard parts of a museum’s program of activities. Museums emphasized popular, self-education between 1820 and 1840 and have continued to include this feature in their missions since that time.
At different times during the first century of U.S. museum history, professionalism spurted ahead, driven by new scientific inventions and technologies, for most museums of the era were natural history museums. Popular education, on the other hand, benefited from improved mass transportation. Robert Fulton’s design of the steamboat, the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, and the rise of the railroads gave travelers an alternative to tiring and dusty journeys by horse-drawn coach and allowed people from states as far away as Ohio and Kentucky to include eastern seaboard museums in their occasional travel plans. As distant travelers sought out museums, curators were gratified and responded with programs of more general, less scholarly interest. The concept of a national museum, free to all and representative of the nation as a whole, took root in the popular imagination and was finally achieved in 1846 with the opening of the Smithsonian Institution.
Following a period of national economic prosperity and intense museum-building activities in the years 1950 to 1980, the American compromise has again reached center stage, this time in a controversial light. With less discretionary money flowing through the economy, some museum directors believe it is no longer economically viable to maintain what amounts to two separate enterprises under one roof. Because public service is at the forefront of a modern museum’s mission, museums are focusing on exhibits and programs for the public at the expense of support for research. Few taxpayers are repeat visitors to museums in any one year, and even fewer have any notion of what it is that museum directors and curators do. The coming decade will likely see increased revenue-generating activities for museums, a temporary freeze on museum allocations for research areas, or both. The financial stress is not uniquely felt by museums, for other civic institutions, notably symphony orchestras, have folded or sharply curtailed programs in the past few years. The American compromise faces some restructuring, introducing a period of uncertainty for many museum employees.
Museum Director and Curator Job Description
A museum director’s most important duties are administrative, including staff leadership, promoting fund-raising campaigns, and ensuring that the museum’s mission is carried out. Directors of large museums may have the assistance of several divisional directors with the authority for specific areas of museum management, such as a director of finance, director of development, director of public programs, director of research, director of education, director of operations, and director of marketing and public relations. In recognition of the museum director’s role as “director of directors,” the museum director sometimes has the title of executive director.
One unusual but not uncommon activity for a museum director is the design of new facilities. A director may spend a year or more working with architects and planners to reconfigure existing areas of the museum, add a wing, or build a museum from the ground up. Construction can be expected to draw resources away from other museum operations and may be accompanied by a massive capital campaign.
Every museum is unique in its mission, the community it serves, its resources, and the way it operates. The responsibilities of directors, therefore, vary widely. Directors of children’s museums typically have a background in education and apply educational philosophies to the design of exhibits and programs suitable for children. Interactive displays, live interpretation, and participatory theater are frequent components of children’s museums, and community outreach programs help ensure that children of all backgrounds benefit from the museum’s programs.
A director of a natural history museum may have a background in science and manage a staff of scientists. Concern for the disturbance of regional habitats and species extinction has prompted some museums to replace traditional galleries exhibiting birds, mammals, or fish with conceptual exhibits emphasizing ecology and evolution. In museums with a strong anthropological component, the repatriation of religious objects or ancestral remains to the country or people of origin is an important and controversial area. Considerable intercultural understanding and knowledge of state laws governing the disposition of materials in museums that receive state tax revenues is a prerequisite for many museum directors.
Directors of art museums typically have academic credentials in a specific art historical field and good financial and fund-raising skills to manage costly collections. The director may be personally involved in making acquisitions for the museum. Directors of museums reflecting a specific culture, such as Mexican, Asian, or Native American culture, need knowledge of that culture and diplomatic skills to arrange the exchange of exhibit material. An issue facing art museums today is the opinion that such institutions are for well-to-do patrons. Art museums are countering that impression by developing programs of interest to people from less advantaged backgrounds.
At science and technology museums, exhibits demonstrate basic physical or biological laws, such as those governing the workings of the human heart, or they may present historical or futuristic exhibits, displaying the actual spacecraft used in early flight or the technology of the future. Directors of science and technology museums place a high priority on instructing the young, and hands-on exhibits are a featured attraction.
Directors of folk museums and historical reconstructions are historians of culture during a particular period. Authenticity, preservation, and providing a historical perspective on modes of living, past and present, are concerns of the director.
A curator’s chief responsibilities include study and preservation of the museum’s collections. Depending on the museum’s size, resources, and deployment of staff, those responsibilities may be expressed in several different directions. In museums with a large curatorial staff, senior curators may function primarily as administrators, overseeing departmental budgets and hiring new curators. In a different employment environment, curators may focus closely on the study and shape of the collections, exchanging materials with other museums or acquiring new specimens and artifacts to create a representative study collection of importance to scholarly work. In a third type of environment, curators may be primarily educators who describe and present collections to the visiting public. At any time, museum administrators may ask curators to redirect efforts toward a different goal of priority to the museum. Thus, a curator develops or brings to the position substantial knowledge of the materials in the collection, and that knowledge is used by the museum for a changing mix of purposes over time.
Curators may also spend time in the field or as visiting scholars at other museums as a means of continuing research related to the home institution’s collections. Fieldwork is usually supported by grants from external sources. As specialists in their disciplines, curators may teach classes in local schools and universities, sometimes serving as academic advisors to doctoral degree candidates whose research is based on museum holdings. Almost all curators supervise a staff ranging from volunteers, interns, and students to research associates, collections managers, technicians, junior curators, and secretarial staff. Some sort of written work, whether it is labeling exhibits, preparing brochures for museum visitors, or publishing in scholarly journals, is typically part of the position.
In related positions, collections managers and curatorial assistants perform many of the same functions as curators, with more emphasis on study and cataloguing of the collections and less involvement with administration and staff supervision. The educational requirements for these positions may be the same as for a curatorial position. A curatorial candidate may accept a position as collections manager while awaiting a vacancy on the curatorial staff, since the opportunity to study, publish research, and conduct fieldwork is usually equally available in both positions. In art, historical, and anthropological museums, registrars and archivists may act as collections managers by cataloging and preserving documents and objects and making information on these items available for scholarly use.
Once hired, curators embark on what is essentially a lifelong program of continuing self-education in museum practices. Curators of large collections must remain current with preservation techniques, including climate control and pest control methods. The human working environment can affect collections in unpredictable ways. As an example, common fungi that afflict house plants may degrade the preservation environment of a collection of amphibians and reptiles, which may mean that all staff in the area are prohibited from introducing house plants into their workstations.
An important development in collections management is computerized cataloguing of holdings for registry in national electronic databases. A number of larger museums and universities are working together to standardize data entry fields for these electronic registries, after which data on every item in a collection must be entered by hand and cross-checked for accuracy. Concurrently, there is a trend toward publishing through nonprint media, such as academic networks administered by the National Sciences Foundation. Continuing self-education in electronic technologies and participation in national conferences addressing these issues will be expected of curators throughout the upcoming decade and beyond, for electronic storage and retrieval systems have radically changed the face of collections management.
Museum Director and Curator Career Requirements
Museum directors and curators need diverse educational backgrounds to perform well in their jobs. At the high school level, you should take courses in English, literature, creative writing, history, art, the sciences, speech, business, and foreign language. These courses will give you the general background knowledge needed to understand both the educational and administrative functions of museums. Math and computer skills are also essential. Museum directors and curators are responsible for preparing budgets and seeking funds from corporations and federal agencies.
Museum directors and curators must have at least a bachelor’s degree. Some colleges and universities offer undergraduate degrees in museology, or the study of museums. Most museums require their directorial staff and chief curators to hold doctoral degrees. Directors and curators usually work in museums that specialize in art, history, or science. These individuals often have degrees in fields related to the museum’s specialty. Directors often have advanced degrees in business management, public relations, or marketing. All curators must have a good working knowledge of the art, objects, and cultures represented in their collections.
Excellent written and oral communication skills are essential. Directors have a primary responsibility to supervise museum staff members, relay information to museum board members, and acquire funding for all museum programming. Museum directors must have extraordinary people skills and feel at ease when soliciting funds. Curators must have excellent research skills. They must be able to meet deadlines, write scholarly articles, and give presentations while managing their traditional museum duties. Museum directors and curators should be well organized and flexible.
Occasionally museums have specific requirements, such as foreign language fluency for an art or anthropology museum or practical computer skills for a science or natural history museum. These skills are ordinarily acquired as part of the background study within the student’s area of concentration and do not pose special problems.
Exploring Museum Director and Curator Career
Because of the diversity of U.S. museums and the academic background required for directorship and curatorial positions, high school students should simply concentrate on doing well in academic studies as preparation for either field. Museum directorships and curatorial positions are highly competitive and reward high academic achievement. Outside of school, participation in clubs that involve fund-raising activities can serve as a strong introduction to one important aspect of a museum director’s job. Becoming the president of one of these clubs can provide you with supervisory skills and experience with delegating authority.
Museums offer public programs for people of all ages. Field trips or tours introduce students to activities conducted by local museums. You may consider participating in an archaeological dig. College-age students may work at museums as volunteers or perhaps as interns for course credit. Depending on the museum’s needs, volunteers and interns may be placed anywhere in the museum, including administration, archives, and other areas where a student may observe staff functions firsthand.
Museums as well as historical societies and state and federal agencies with public archives and libraries hire directors and curators. These institutions are located throughout the world, in both small and large cities, and are responsible for providing public access to their collections. Museums and similar institutions employ directors and curators to fulfill their educational goals through continued research, care of collections, and public programs.
Museology, or the study of museums, is offered as an undergraduate major by some colleges in the United States, but most museum workers at all levels enter museum work because they possess specific skills and a body of knowledge useful to a particular museum. For a museum director, as for a well-qualified curator, this translates into content knowledge, managerial and administrative skills, fund-raising ability, leadership ability, and excellent communication skills for effective interaction with the media and the board of trustees. While the role of a curator is focused primarily on collections and the role of director is often more administrative and interpersonal, the two positions both require a great degree of knowledge across the board regarding the museum’s mission statement, acquisitions, and community involvement.
Museum directors typically move into a directorship in one of three ways: laterally, from a previous directorship of another museum; vertically, from an administrative or curatorial position within the same museum; or laterally from a different sphere of employment, such as a university presidency, business management, government agency, or law practice.
A position as curator usually is not anticipated and prepared for in advance, but becomes available as an employment option following a long period of training in a discipline. College and advanced degree students who have identified a curatorial position as a career goal may be able to apply for curatorial internships of varying terms, usually a year or less. Interns typically work on a project identified by the museum, which may involve only one task or several different tasks. Additionally, museums thrive on a large base of volunteer labor, and this method of gaining museum experience should not be overlooked. Curators may ask volunteers to assist in a variety of tasks, ranging from clerical duties to conservation and computerized cataloguing. When funds are available, volunteer work may be converted to hourly paid work.
Museum directors typically succeed one another, moving from smaller museums to larger museums or from a general to a specialty museum. A museum directorship is a lifetime career goal and may be held for decades by the same person. A museum director who retires from the position is well prepared to sit on state or national advisory councils to the arts and sciences. Some return to academic life through teaching, research, or curricula development. Others provide oversight and guidance to large institutions, sit on corporate boards, or become involved in the start-up of new museums.
Curatorial positions follow the assistant, associate, and full (or senior) track of academic employment, with advancement depending on research and publishing, education, and service to the institution. A curator with a taste for and skill in administration may serve as departmental chair or may seek a higher administrative post.
In the course of their museum duties, curators may act as advisors to or principals in external nonprofit endeavors, such as setting up international ecological preserves or providing technical assistance and labor to aid a developing country in the study of its archaeological past. Many teach in local schools or universities. Curators who leave museum work may devote themselves full time to these or similar pursuits, although a university professorship as a second choice is difficult to achieve, for curators and professors are essentially competing for the same market position and have similar credentials. Occasionally, curators find fieldwork so compelling that they leave not only the museum, but also all formal employment, relying on grants and personal contributions from supporters to support their work. To maintain an independent life as a researcher without formal affiliation requires a high profile in the discipline, continuing demonstration of productivity in the form of new research and publications, and some skill in self-promotion.
The salaries of museum directors and curators cover a broad range, reflecting the diversity, size, and budget of U.S. museums, along with the director or curator’s academic and professional achievements. In general, museum workers’ salaries are low compared to salaries for similar positions in the business world or in aca-demia. This is due in part to the large number of people competing for the relatively small number of positions available. At the high end of the scale, museum directors at museums like the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, or the Art Institute of Chicago earn more than $500,000 a year.
A survey of its members conducted by the Association of Art Museum Directors reported that the average salary of an art museum director is roughly $110,000. The average salary of a deputy director ranges from $65,000 to $123,000, while the average salary of an assistant to the director is roughly $31,000. The same study reported entry-level curatorial positions, often titled curatorial assistant or curatorial intern, as averaging $24,000, while assistant curator salaries average from $26,000 to $37,000 per year. Both the position of associate curator, a title with supervisory duties, and the position of curator of exhibitions average $34,000 to $53,000. Chief curator salaries average $57,000, but, as with many museum titles, may be considerably higher or lower depending on the demands of the job and the museum’s overall budget. Curators directing an ongoing program of conservation and acquisitions in a large, national or international urban museum command the highest salaries and may earn as much as $152,000.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median annual earnings of archivists, curators, and museum technicians were $43,920 in 2004. Salaries ranged from less than $25,470 to more than $77,680. Museum curators employed by the federal government in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions had median annual earnings of $76,126 in 2005.
Fringe benefits, including paid vacations and sick leave, medical and dental insurance, and retirement plans, vary between museum directors and curators and according to each employing institution’s policies.
The directorship of a museum is an all-consuming occupation. Considerable travel, program development, fund-raising, and staff management may be involved. Evenings and weekends are often taken up by social activities involving museum donors or affiliates. A museum director must be willing to accept the pressure of answering to the museum’s board of trustees while also overseeing museum staff and handling public relations.
As new issues affecting museums arise in the national consciousness and draw media attention, a director must be able to respond appropriately. A delicate balance must be maintained between the role of a museum as a civic institution, as reflected in the kinds of programs and exhibits developed for the public, and the less visible but equally important role of the museum as manager of the objects in its care, as reflected in conservation, research, publishing efforts, and the availability of the collections to visiting scholars. Museum directors must juggle competing interests and requests for the museum’s resources.
The office of a director is typically housed within the museum. Many directors have considerable staff support, to which they can delegate specific areas of responsibility, and thus must have strong interpersonal and diplomatic skills.
Curators typically have an office in a private area of the museum, but may have to share office space. Employment conditions and benefits are more like those of industry than academia, although the employment contract may stipulate that the curator is free to pursue a personal schedule of fieldwork for several weeks during the year.
A curatorial post and a directorship are typically 9-to-5 jobs, but that does not take into account the long hours of study necessary to sustain scholarly research, weekend time spent on public programs, or evening meetings with donors, trustees, and museum affiliates. The actual hours spent on curatorial-related and directorship activities may be double those of the employment contract. Directors and curators must enjoy their work, be interested in museum operations and a museum’s profile in the community, and willingly put in the necessary time. Becoming a museum director only occurs after years of dedication to the field and a great deal of tenacity. Likewise, curatorial positions are won by highly educated, versatile people, who in turn accept long hours and relatively (in comparison to other industries) low pay in exchange for doing work they love.
Museum Director and Curator Career Outlook
There are few openings for directors and curators and competition for them is high. New graduates may have to start as interns, volunteers, assistants, or research associates before finding full-time curator or director positions. Turnover is very low in museum work, so museum workers may have to stay in a lower-level position for some years before advancing to a director or curator position. Employment for museum directors and curators is expected to increase about as fast as the average through 2014, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook. The best opportunities are in art and history museums.
Curators must be able to develop revenue-generating public programs based on the study collections and integrate themselves firmly into programs of joint research with area institutions (other museums or universities) or national institutions, ideally programs of some duration and supported by external funding. Museums are affected by economic conditions and the availability of grants and other charitable funding.