Curators manage artefacts or works of art with the aim of engaging with audiences and bringing collections to life
As a museum or gallery curator, you'll manage collections of artefacts or works of art. This includes dealing with the acquisition, care, display and interpretation of items with the aim of informing and educating the public.
It can be a varied job and often includes other activities, such as managing public relations, marketing, fundraising and running education programmes. You'll also be expected to prepare budgets, manage staff and build relationships with both internal and external partners and stakeholders.
You will need to make sure that you're constructing innovative and creative exhibitions that will appeal to the type of audiences you're wishing to attract. This could be a wide cross-section of the general public or a more targeted group such as schools or young children.
It's becoming common for museums, galleries, heritage and tourism attractions to develop collaborative relationships so it's likely you'll work with these to share collections and expertise. A rise in digital platforms has also given new opportunities to distribute and engage with collections.
The role of museum/gallery curator can overlap with that of a museum/gallery exhibitions officer.
The specific responsibilities of a curator can vary from museum to museum. In a larger museum or gallery, it's likely you would have responsibility for a specific part of the collection, whereas in a small one you may in effect be the manager for the whole collection.
Whatever the size of your workplace, you'll have responsibility for a collection of artefacts or work of art and will typically need to:
- acquire objects or collections of interest to the museum or gallery
- catalogue acquisitions, carry out background research and keep records
- display objects or collections in a way that makes them accessible and engaging to the general public
- write materials and articles for the museum or gallery website and internal or external publications
- plan, organise, interpret and present exhibitions and lectures
- have responsibility for collection management
- collaborate with other museum departments, such as education, fundraising, marketing and conservation
- write bids and liaise with grant agencies to secure sponsorship for events, publications and development projects
- negotiate loan items, external loans and the accompanying funding
- handle enquiries from researchers, clients, stakeholders and the public
- deal with and understand computer-generated imagery and website software as part of enhancing visitor interaction and experience
- plan, forecast and report on budgets
- work with other museums, galleries or heritage centres to share exhibitions or expertise and knowledge of collections
- liaise with external groups such as schools and local history groups
- liaise with management boards, governors, trustees and local council and political groups to secure the future of the museum.
- The annual salary for assistant curators is around £18,000 to £25,000, depending on location and responsibilities.
- Typical salaries at a higher level, for those with experience, range from £26,000 to £39,000.
- Salaries at senior level such as lead curator or head of collections can exceed £50,000.
Salaries vary depending on your experience, level of responsibility and the size of the employing organisation.
Benefit packages can include professional membership and discounts.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours are mainly Monday to Friday, totalling around 38 to 40 hours per week. Extra hours may be necessary in the run up to an exhibition and you may be expected to carry out weekend or evening work for fundraising or events.
Part-time work and flexible hours may be possible.
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What to expect
- Self-employment and contract work are common, particularly in the field of archaeology where consultancy work can lead to international opportunities.
- Jobs are mainly available in large towns and cities, although specialist museums exist in smaller towns and in rural areas.
- Travel within a working day may occasionally be required to attend meetings or to visit other touring exhibitions. Absence from home overnight is uncommon.
- Overseas work or travel is uncommon except for those whose expertise is recognised internationally. Sometimes, curators and conservators working for the larger galleries or museums will be asked to attend conferences and/or act as couriers accompanying pieces travelling on loan to other institutions.
- People from minority groups are currently under-represented in the museum sector. However, organisations such as the Museums Association (MA) and Group for Education in Museums (GEM) are actively involved in promoting wider access and opportunities through increasing the diversity of staff, volunteers and audiences.
You'll typically need a good honours degree if you want to become a museum or gallery curator. Subjects that are particularly useful and sought by employers include:
- archaeology or ancient history
- fine art
- history or history of art
- museum/heritage studies
- natural sciences.
It's also possible to enter from a range of other degree subjects though including languages, English literature and science.
If you have a particular area of expertise in mind for your curating work, it's useful to have a relevant qualification. For example, curators of ancient Greek or Roman artefacts are likely to have a degree in classical studies, ancient history or archaeology.
A postgraduate qualification can also be helpful and may be necessary for certain roles, especially those at a higher level. This can include a PhD or Masters in your specialism or a Masters or diploma in museum and/or gallery studies. Search postgraduates courses in museum studies.
The museum sector is committed to diversifying its workforce and expanding entry routes through traineeships and paid internships. So you may be able to find opportunities through alternative routes.
You'll need to have:
- an interest in and knowledge of a relevant subject area
- accuracy and attention to detail
- communication skills, both written and oral
- information technology and web design skills
- motivation and creative flair
- influencing and negotiation skills
- organisation, planning and administrative skills
- project management skills
- political awareness
- research skills
- teamwork skills and the ability to build and develop relationships
- a flexible approach to work.
Pre-entry work experience within museums, galleries or heritage work is usually essential. This can be in the form of part-time jobs, volunteering or internships. As well as gaining hands-on experience, it also allows you to network and set up useful contacts which may lead to future work.
You can check the websites of relevant organisations for details of opportunities and they may also advertise them on their social media channels. Competition for internships can be fierce so make sure you do your research and create a well thought-out application.
Competition for entry-level jobs is intense and staff turnover is low. You may need to be flexible in terms of geographical location and you'll typically need to be prepared to do voluntary work while still a student to secure a place.
When searching for voluntary opportunities, contact local museums and galleries, as well as the larger and national ones. Smaller museums and galleries may not be as overwhelmed with requests and could offer you a broader range of experience.
You could also contact heritage organisations, such as:
- British Association of Friends of Museums
- Museums Galleries Scotland
- National Trust
- National Trust for Scotland
The Museums Association has useful information on getting into the sector.
You could also consider becoming a member of the Museums Association, which offers a discounted rate to students and provides access to training and events, as well as helping you to keep up to date with industry news.
Galleries and museums are located throughout the UK, some with specialist collections, others displaying a more diverse range of artefacts and exhibits.
Large national institutions include:
- The British Museum
- National Galleries of Scotland
- The National Gallery
- National Museum Wales
- National Museums Scotland
The Northern Ireland Museums Council (NIMC) has details of museums in Northern Ireland.
Many universities have galleries and museums, and these include some major public institutions such as the:
If you're based in local authority museums and galleries, you'll often be employed by the leisure or education department. The collections held by these museums tend to reflect the history, industrial heritage or landscape of the locality.
Independent museums, many of which are run as charitable concerns, range from very small organisations, set up by individual enthusiasts and run by volunteers, to large, regional and national establishments. For more information, see the Association of Independent Museums (AIM).
Look for job vacancies at:
- Museums Association (MA) - access to jobs once you have registered
- Museum Jobs
- University of Leicester Museum Studies Jobs Desk
- Work Culture Jobs
You can also try checking the websites of specific museums or galleries for opportunities.
Heritage organisations may advertise vacancies, for example:
Also, look at education supplements, especially for education, research and technical appointments, as well as leisure job sites, such as Leisure Management.
You will expand your knowledge, skills and experience on the job but will also need to complete continuing professional development (CPD). Training opportunities can include conferences, exhibitions, workshops and seminars which are offered by various organisations including the Museums Association (MA).
The MA also offers the following professional development awards:
- Associateship of the Museums Association (AMA) - usually takes two to three years to complete and will help you take responsibility for your professional development with the support of a mentor.
- Fellowship of the Museums Association (FMA) - for senior and experienced staff members, which aims to recognise and encourage an advanced level of professional contribution, development and achievement.
Find out more at Museums Association Careers.
A variety of in-service courses are run by regional federations of museums, specialist groups and private training providers. Many such courses are available to voluntary staff.
It's likely that you'll need to start out as an assistant curator or assistant in another area of museum or gallery work, before you're able to secure a job as a curator.
You'll need to take responsibility for managing and developing your own career, which, given appropriate experience and contacts, may include freelance and consultancy work. You may also move between sectors, particularly at senior managerial or specialist-technical level. Ongoing promotion is likely to be into broader-based management roles with less daily contact with collections.
Budgeting, financial management and income generation through fundraising, entry fees and retailing can all be essential skills for the generalist curator and for those wanting to secure a more senior role.
While many museums and galleries don't make a charge for entry, the value for money they give in terms of cost-per-visitor per year is subject to careful scrutiny. Curators are, therefore, expected to establish good relationships with donors and you'll need to develop the professional skills and competencies that will enable you to build links with key stakeholders, including local communities, governing bodies and research institutions.
All museum professionals should adhere to the code of ethics for museums, produced by the MA.