Generally speaking, a Curator is one who takes care of the collection at a museum, historic site, aquarium, or zoo. The word “curator” itself comes from the Latin word curatus, which means “care.”
A museum curator has a variety of responsibilities, which vary from institution to institution, depending on the size of the museum, its mission, its budget, and the other positions on the staff. A curator can be an expert in a very narrowly defined field, such as 19th century furniture, or a “jack of all trades,” doing a little bit of everything the job might require.
At a smaller museum, a Curator wears many hats. What might be several jobs at a large museum are usually rolled into one person. For example, while my job title is officially “Curator,” I perform the duties of a Registrar, Collections Manager, and Director of Exhibitions. At some museums, the Curator might be involved in education programs, volunteer management, public relations, and grant writing, just to name a few.
So what does a Curator do all day?
* Acquisitions: A Curator is in charge of building the museum’s permanent collection. This might entail identifying gaps in the collection and actively seeking out items to fill it, or making recommendations to eliminate items that are duplicates or do not fit into the museum’s mission. A Curator handles new donations and the paperwork that goes along with it. At a large institution, the Registrar would handle all of the paperwork, including signing the Deed of Gift agreement, assigning it an accessions number, cataloging it, and physically numbering it.
* Collections Management: In order to care for the collection, a Curator must be knowledgeable about the proper storage conditions for several different types of artifacts. Essential skills include reading and maintaining a hygrothermograph (a machine that records temperature and relative humidity), a light meter (to regulate safe lighting levels both in storage and exhibition galleries), and a comprehensive understanding of safe storage materials for various kinds of materials. At a large museum, storage and all related issues would be the realm of the Collections Manager.
* Exhibitions: What good is the collection if no one ever gets to see it? My favorite part of my job is exhibition design. At a larger institution, an entire department would be dedicated to exhibit design and fabrication. Sometimes, if the budget allows, an outside design firm is called in to develop an exhibition. In that case, a Curator and an exhibitions team made up of several different staff members would determine the contents of the exhibit, select artifacts, and write the labels and text panels. The design itself would be completed by someone else, with the Curator overseeing the conditions under which each object will be exhibited. At my job, I do all of the above myself.
* Research and Writing: No matter where you work, a Curator spends a great deal of time doing research and writing. Tracing the provenance of an artifact involves real detective work, so you have to know how to research. The public also submits a variety research requests to the Curator. If part of your job is doing exhibitions, you have to understand the subtle art of “label writing” – believe me, it is nothing like any other kind of writing. Your audience has a short attention span, so you better get what you need to say out there in a clear, concise way or you’ll lose them! This skill can take years to develop. Some Curators also write articles in scholarly journals or even books on their area of expertise.
* Community Connections: It is not essential for every Curator to possess public speaking skills, but it certainly helps. A museum curator is often a respected member of the community, and may be asked to speak at various organizations about topics ranging from local history to antiques. It is important for a museum to remain visible in the community, and one way to do that is for the Curator to develop outreach programs. Many museum professionals often give presentations and participate in roundtable discussions at regional and national meetings and conferences.
Does this sound like the career for you? Then check out the companion article “So You Want to Be a Curator” and see what you need to do to make your dream a reality!