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Museum/Art Gallery Curator

Museum and art gallery curators manage collections of objects of artistic, scientific and historic interest, bringing them to life in a way that's educational and appealing.

They:

  • research and develop collections
  • share items with other collections
  • interpret collections for a range of visitors
  • plan and create displays and exhibitions.

Curators may also be involved in marketing, fundraising, answering visitor questions, giving presentations or in management roles.

They usually work a set number of hours a week, which may include regular and evening and weekend work. Part-time, short-term contracts and seasonal work are often available.

New entrants may start on around £13,000 a year. Senior curators may earn up to £36,000.

Curators should have:

  • creative flair
  • knowledge of conservation and preservation techniques
  • good communication and organisational skills
  • ability to take initiative
  • an interest in history, art or the sciences and often a specialist area, such as archaeology or art history.

Museums and art galleries in the UK cover a wide range of subjects and are found in most parts of the UK. Employers include national museums and galleries, regional museums and galleries, university museums and independent specialist museums and galleries.

Freelance and consultancy and short-term contract work is becoming more common.

Most curators have a degree and, increasingly, a postgraduate certificate, diploma or Masters degree often in related subjects such as arts and cultural or heritage management, history of art, museum and heritage studies or archaeology. Foundation degrees are also available.

The Diploma in creative and media may be relevant to this area of work.

Entry is very competitive and it is essential to have relevant work experience, either voluntary or paid.

Curators can work towards NVQs Levels 2 to 5 in cultural heritage.

Curators need to keep their knowledge and skills up to date with continuing professional development (CPD) which is available through professional organisations.

Curators may need to move around the country to gain experience. In larger museums, it may be possible to move up into a senior curator or collections manager position and then, potentially, to management and director level.

What is the work like?

Museum and art gallery curators manage collections of objects of artistic, scientific and historic interest. Increasingly, curators play an important role in interpreting and bringing these collections to life in a way that's both educational and appealing to a range of visitors. In some museums, curators may be called keepers.

Curators in contemporary art galleries or other arts venues may only be responsible for objects in temporary exhibitions.

Typical duties may involve:

  • researching and understanding collections, including their social or historical context
  • developing collections by acquiring items and by borrowing and sharing items from other collections
  • planning and creating the displays and exhibitions, often using multimedia techniques
  • interpreting collections for a range of visitors
  • carefully cataloguing items being displayed or archived and maintaining records, usually on a computer
  • ensuring exhibits are stored in the right conditions.

In large museums, curators will often have responsibility for a specialist collection. In smaller, independent museums they may be in charge of the museum. University museum curators are also expected to contribute to student teaching and academic research programmes.

Other work may include:

  • organising marketing, publicity and fundraising events
  • co-ordinating other staff within the museum
  • liaising with schools and other groups and giving tours and educational presentations
  • answering specific questions from visitors about a collection.

The curator may also have a management role, making sure that everything runs smoothly and looking after staff issues, security, risk assessment and insurance, as well as influencing museum policies. Curators may also oversee the restoration of certain artefacts.

Hours and environment

Curators usually work a set number of hours a week, sometimes on a rota. Regular evening and weekend work is common, as curators may need to be available during extended opening hours or to set up special exhibitions when the museum/gallery is closed to the public. Part-time, short-term contracts and seasonal work are often available.

Work is usually indoors, in areas designed specifically for exhibits and displays. However, some curators also work outdoors in open-air, industrial, farming or heritage museums.

The job can involve considerable standing, lifting and handling of valuable and heavy exhibits and paintings. Uniforms are likely to be provided, particularly in large museums.

Salary and other benefits

These figures are only a guide, as actual rates of pay may vary, depending on the employer and where people live.

  • Starting salaries may range from £13,000 to £19,000 a year.
  • An assistant curator with some experience or a postgraduate qualification is likely to earn between £19,500 and £23,500 a year.
  • Senior curators may earn up to £36,000 a year.

Skills and personal qualities

A museum/art gallery curator should have:

  • creative flair
  • knowledge of conservation and preservation techniques
  • an artistic eye and appreciation of how to make information accessible to the public
  • good communication skills for giving talks and producing published information
  • excellent organisational, planning and budgeting skills
  • the ability to take initiative but be able to work in a team setting
  • strong interpersonal skills, to enthuse and motivate other staff
  • attention to detail when researching and cataloguing objects
  • good IT skills.

Interests

It is important to be interested in:

  • history, art or the sciences
  • a specialist area, such as art history or archaeology.

Getting in

Museums and art galleries cover a wide range of subjects and are found in most parts of the UK. Employers include:

  • national museums and galleries such as the National Galleries, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum
  • regional museums and galleries
  • university museums
  • independent specialist museums and galleries.

Freelance and consultancy work is becoming more common, with curators with specialist knowledge employed on short-term contracts to work on specific exhibitions. There is a high level of competition for curator jobs.

Vacancies are usually advertised in local and national newspapers and on the Museums Association's website and other specialist websites, including www.museumjobs.com and www.nationalmuseumjobs.org.uk. Personal contacts from voluntary work can also be an important source of job opportunities.

Entry routes

Most curators have a degree and, increasingly, a postgraduate certificate, diploma or Masters degree often in related subjects such as:

  • arts and cultural or heritage management
  • history of art
  • museum and heritage studies
  • archaeology.

Relevant foundation degrees are available. Entry to a foundation degree is usually with at least 4 GCSEs (A*-C) plus one A level pass, a BTEC National Diploma or equivalent. Degree courses usually require five GCSEs (A*-C) and a minimum of two A levels, or equivalent. For entry to a postgraduate qualification, candidates need a good first degree (usually 2.1 or above).

The Diploma in creative and media may be relevant to this area of work.

It is essential to have relevant work experience, either voluntary or paid. The Museums Association website has information on volunteering. It is also worth contacting museums or galleries direct. Many are listed in the Museums Association Yearbook.

The larger national museums may also offer a limited number of work-based curator training schemes.

Curators who work with the public may have to undergo checks through the Criminal Records Bureau.

Training

Training is likely to be on the job. Curators may work towards NVQs Levels 2 to 5 in cultural heritage.

Curators need to keep their knowledge and skills up to date through continuing professional development (CPD). The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) and the Museums Association (MA) run professional development events and training. The MA CPD programme can lead to Associateship of the MA.

Some curators undertake further postgraduate qualifications at Masters or PhD level. Leicester University offers a distance-learning programme. The Museums and Galleries Yearbook, produced by the MA, lists postgraduate courses.

Getting on

Curators may need to move around the country to gain experience. This is especially true in smaller museums, which may offer fewer promotional opportunities.

Large museums have a more structured promotional path. It may be possible to progress from assistant curator to senior curator or collections manager and, potentially, to management and museum director levels.

Further information

Association of Independent Museums (AIM), 4 Clayhall Road, Gosport, Hampshire PO12 2BY. 02392 587751. Website: www.aim-museums.co.uk

Creative & Cultural Skills, Lafone House, The Leathermarket, Weston Street, London SE1 3HN. 020 7015 1800. Websites: www.ccskills.org.uk and www.creative-choices.co.uk

Museums Association, 24 Calvin Street, London E1 6NW. 020 7426 6910. Website: www.museumsassociation.org

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