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, 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. 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 increase in new digital platforms also offers new opportunities for curators to distribute and engage with collections.

The role of museum/gallery curator can overlap with that of a museum/gallery exhibitions officer.

Responsibilities

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.

At a large national museum or gallery, however, 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, 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 and keep records
  • carry out background research and write catalogues
  • display objects or collections in a way that makes them accessible and engaging to the general public
  • write materials and articles for the website
  • write articles for internal and external publications
  • plan, organise, interpret and present exhibitions and lectures
  • have responsibility for collection documentation and management
  • collaborate with other museum departments, such as education, fundraising, marketing and conservation
  • write bids
  • negotiate loan items, external loans and the accompanying funding
  • handle enquiries from researchers 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
  • manage staff recruitment, training, promotion and development
  • deal with enquiries from clients and stakeholders
  • liaise 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
  • liaise with management boards, governors, trustees and local council and political groups to secure the future of the museum
  • network with other museum and art gallery professionals and outside agencies.

Salary

  • 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 at senior level such as lead curator or head of collections can exceed £40,000.

Salaries vary depending on your experience, level of responsibility and the size of the employing organisation.

Benefit packages can include flexible working, career break sabbaticals, professional membership and discounts.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

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.
  • 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. 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.

Qualifications

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 or diploma in museum and/or gallery studies. Search postgraduates courses in museum studies.

Skills

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.

Work experience

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.

Internships, jobs and voluntary opportunities are advertised via the University of Leicester Museum Studies Jobs Desk. The Museums Association (MA) also advertises internships to its members. It may be worth checking Facebook or LinkedIn, 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 could also contact heritage organisations, such as:

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.

Employers

According to the MA, there are about 2,500 museums and galleries in the UK, with over 1,800 of them registered under the Accreditation Scheme, which sets nationally-agreed standards for museums and galleries in the UK.

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 Northern Ireland Museums Council (NIMC) has details of museums in Northern Ireland.

In contrast, some local galleries and museums may only have one professional member of staff and rely heavily on the support of volunteers.

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:

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.

Professional development

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.

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.

Career prospects

Most curators will have worked as assistant curators, or assistants in other areas of museum or gallery work, before securing the role of curator. Most job advertisements for assistant-level posts will ask for two years of relevant experience.

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.

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