What a museum curator does

Curators serve in a variety of practical and intellectual capacities. They may be involved, as Dr. Sabine Albermeier has summarized for us, in the acquisition, conservation, and maintenance of artifacts and works of art; the compilation of record-keeping systems for museum collections; the direct study of objects; the publication of scholarly articles and museum catalogues; the arrangement of objects for display; and the presentation of exhibitions to engage visitors and disseminate knowledge. Curators usually hold an M.A. or Ph.D. in their area of expertise, ordinarily Art History or (for Greco-Roman specialists) Classical Archaeology.

Some other careers available in the museum world

A museum is an extremely diverse working environment, with many different kinds of professionals supporting the acquisition, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge.

  • Conservators are preservation specialists involved in the physical care (and repair) and study of objects and works of art. They often hold master's degrees (or more) from technical university-based training programs.
  • Museum educators engage museum visitors, whether from school groups or the general public, online or in person, with programming, published materials, and other resources to help them learn from and with museum collections. Museum educators often hold graduate degrees along with their undergraduate credentials.
  • Archivists maintain and study collections of information, both written records and objects. As such, they may organize and generate records that belong to a museum, but they may equally conduct research in other kinds of human records that a museum protects and preserves. Archivists often hold graduate degrees along with their undergraduate credentials.
  • Nonprofit administration careers are a common opportunity at museums: there are roles in every area from accounting and finance to management.
  • Digital technology plays a crucial role in the maintenance of museum operations and collections, and in museums' efforts to connect with the public.

The educational path

Museum careers are competitive, and so students who wish to follow this trajectory are encouraged to prepare as energetically and as thoroughly as possible for graduate school and the job market.

Recommendations for undergraduate preparations

Strong preparation for an undergraduate student interested in a career as a museum curator should ideally include at least three years of one ancient language and two years of the other, as well as introductory or reading-comprehension study of a modern language (the Department of Modern Languages offers reading-comprehension courses during the summers). You should also elect courses that introduce you to the acquisition, study, and interpretation of ancient objects, in such subject areas as archaeology and art.

A student interested in a career as a museum conservator should ideally pursue as much experience as possible in summer institutes and on excavations.  Future archivists will want to seek out opportunities to (for example) serve as research assistants to faculty who work with primary sources. And all students who wish to work in museums in the future should actively seek out opportunities to intern and volunteer as often as possible (see below).

Language work

As for careers in classical archaeology, scholar-level skills in both Latin and ancient Greek are required for aspirational museum curators. But sound command of relevant modern languages will likely be valued at the higher levels of many different subfields in this profession.

Going to graduate school

As you can see from the entries above, graduate study is essential for many types of museum careers. The type of graduate credential a student pursues is likely to be determined by the subfield of specialization.

Museology and museum studies programs

This area of study has blossomed in more recent years. Programs may offer courses dealing with both theory and practice. Some institutions may have a Museum Studies certificate that can be earned alongside a M.A. or Ph.D. in Art History; and other schools may furnish standalone credentials. Because the opportunities are so diverse, some careful reflection and preparation in preparing for graduate work in this area and selecting a program is especially helpful.

Internships

Internships help you hone skills and build professional contacts, both of which are essential in preparing you to enter a very competitive job market. Ideally, you should pursue several internships in the course of your education, at museums of varying size and emphasis and in different departments or areas, in order to try out as many aspects of the profession as possible.

You can (and should) begin interning as an undergraduate, during the summers and even during the academic year. Many museums post opportunities for interns on their websites. Although you will likely not be paid, the potential to accumulate experience is invaluable. Once you become a graduate student, you can apply for paid internships and fellowships; some museum fellowships may even provide support for you to research and write your doctoral dissertation.

At times when it is not logistically or financially feasible for you to intern, you can continue to build your experience by volunteering as a docent or in a museum's education department. If you are able to train to give tours, this will also help you refine your public speaking and presentation skills, which are not only crucial to the museum profession but also useful in academic and professional interviews.