Curators play an important part in both managing the artefacts or works of art in a museum or gallery and making collections come alive
As a museum or gallery curator, you'll manage collections of artefacts or works of art. This includes dealing with the acquisition, care and display 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 - the role often overlaps with that of a museum/gallery exhibitions officer. Curators are also expected to prepare budgets, manage staff and build relationships with both internal and external partners and stakeholders.
It's becoming common for museums, galleries, heritage and tourism attractions to develop collaborative relationships and share collections, as well as their expertise, so it's essential to construct innovative and creative exhibitions that appeal to a wide cross-section of the general public.
The specific responsibilities of a curator can vary from museum to museum. At a small independent museum or gallery you may, in effect, be the manager. This would involve looking after the collection, operations, staff and volunteers.
On the other hand, at a large national museum or gallery, you might be responsible for one specific area of the collection, for research in a specific field of knowledge and for the management of a small team of assistants and volunteers.
Whatever the size of your workplace, your job is likely to include:
- responsibility for a collection of artefacts or works of art
- acquiring objects or collections of interest to the museum or gallery
- cataloguing acquisitions and keeping records
- carrying out background research and writing catalogues
- displaying objects or collections in a way that makes them accessible and engaging to the general public
- writing materials and articles for the website
- writing articles for internal and external publications
- planning, organising, interpreting and presenting exhibitions and lectures
- collection documentation and management
- collaborating with other museum departments, such as education, fundraising, marketing and conservation
- writing bids
- negotiating loan items, external loans and the accompanying funding
- handling enquiries from researchers and the public
- dealing with and understanding computer-generated imagery and website software as part of enhancing visitor interaction and experience
- budget planning, forecasting and reporting
- staff management, recruitment, annual appraisals and disciplinary matters
- staff training, promotion and development
- dealing with enquiries from clients and stakeholders
- liaising with voluntary groups, the community and industry (including schools, local history and other community groups), as well as grant agencies to secure sponsorship for events, publications and development projects
- liaising with management boards, governors, trustees and local council and political groups to secure the future of the museum
- networking with other museum and art gallery professionals and outside agencies.
- 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 £35,000.
- Salaries can exceed £40,000 depending on the position, level of responsibility and the size of the employing organisation.
Benefit packages can include flexible working, career break sabbaticals, professional membership, discounts, etc.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours are mainly Monday to Friday, but extra hours are often necessary in the run up to an exhibition, providing cover for evening meetings or other work-related social events for which time off in lieu is usually claimed. Part-time work may be possible.
What to expect
- Self-employment and contract work are common, not least in the field of archaeology where consultancy work can lead to international opportunities, depending on reputation.
- The gender balance is reasonably equal.
- Jobs are widely available, mainly in large towns and cities, although specialist museums exist in smaller towns and in rural areas.
- Employment opportunities are growing in independent organisations and related sectors, such as tourism and arts administration.
- Demands such as meeting deadlines and complying with budgetary constraints may be stressful.
- Travel within a working day may occasionally be required. 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.
This area of work is open to all graduates and although subjects such as history and history of art may be the most obvious choices, curators can come from a range of academic backgrounds including languages, English literature and science.
Curators will often have qualifications in their area of expertise so, for example, a curator of ancient Greek or Roman artefacts is likely to have a degree in a relevant field, such as classical studies, ancient history or archaeology.
A good honours degree is generally the minimum academic entry requirement and a pre-entry postgraduate qualification is usually required - either a PhD in your specialism, or a Masters/diploma in museum and/or gallery studies.
You will need to show evidence of the following:
- 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 and building relationships
- a flexible approach to work.
Hands-on experience is highly valued. It's worth remembering that you can sometimes argue the case for the equivalence of experience or vocational qualifications.
Pre-entry work experience through an internship or voluntary work is crucial, both to gain experience and to build up a network of useful contacts. Competition for internships is fierce and it's essential to submit a well-thought-out and targeted application. Some internships are funded by a relevant organisation (or partnership of organisations) and are therefore paid. Individual institutions may offer their own programmes but these are predominantly unpaid.
Internships, both paid and unpaid, as well as jobs and voluntary opportunities are advertised via the Leicester University School of Museum Studies Jobs Desk. The Museums Association (MA) also advertises internships to its members. It may be worth checking Facebook, as many organisations have pages where opportunities are advertised.
Competition for entry-level jobs is intense and staff turnover is low. You'll need to be flexible in terms of geographical location and 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 may also want to contact heritage organisations, such as:
- British Association of Friends of Museums
- Museums Galleries Scotland
- National Trust
- National Trust for Scotland
For advice on voluntary work in museums, try MA Volunteering, which also has a volunteer category of membership. Volunteer membership provides a range of benefits, including access to training and events and a subscription to Museums Journal, the MA's monthly news magazine.
Student membership of the MA is useful and provides networking opportunities as well as access to training and career development resources, job alerts and the Museums Journal.
There are more than 2,500 museums and galleries in the UK, with just under 1,800 of them registered under the Accreditation Scheme, which sets nationally-agreed standards for museums and galleries in the UK. For more information, see the Arts Council England.
Galleries and museums are located throughout the UK, some with specialist collections, others displaying a more diverse range of artefacts and exhibits.
Hundreds of people are employed, in a variety of specialist roles, in large, national institutions, such as:
- The British Museum
- National Galleries of Scotland
- National Gallery
- National Museum Wales
- National Museums Scotland
In contrast, some local galleries and museums may only have one professional member of staff and rely heavily on the support of volunteers.
For a list of museums and galleries in Scotland, try Museums Galleries 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, represent over half the museum provision in the UK. They 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).
The armed forces also have national museums with professional staff, as well as regimental museums, usually run by former officers.
There are opportunities to work in specialist museums, sometimes run by commercial organisations, and with private collections.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Leicester University School of Museum Studies Jobs Desk
- Local Government Jobs
- Museums Association (MA)
- Museum Jobs
- National Museum Directors' Council Jobs
You can also try checking the local and national press, as well as 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 publications, such as Leisure Management.
Contact details for museums, galleries and heritage sites in the UK can be found in the Museums and Galleries Yearbook.
The MA offers several continuing professional development (CPD) schemes for its members, designed for those already working in the sector:
- Associateship of the Museums Association (AMA) - a level of membership of the MA and a professional development award. The 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) - senior and experienced staff members can apply for Fellowship, which aims to recognise and encourage an advanced level of professional contribution, development and achievement.
The training body for museums, galleries and heritage organisations in the UK is Creative and Cultural Skills. It's also the validation body for courses across the sector. Training includes short courses by various providers.
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.
Most curators will have worked as assistant curators, or assistants in other areas of museum or gallery work, before securing the rule of curator. Most job advertisements for assistant-level posts will ask for two years of relevant experience.
There is now a real need for museum and gallery staff to manage their own careers, which, given appropriate experience and contacts, may include freelance and consultancy work. Staff 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.
In addition, 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 do not 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 expected to develop good relationships with donors. They need to develop the professional skills and competencies that will enable them 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.