The role of museum and art gallery curators has changed over recent years and there is now much more emphasis on interpreting collections and making them accessible to the wider public.
Curators play an important role in making collections come alive. These collections may have artistic, scientific, historical or general interest, and can involve a huge range of items, such as paintings, sculptures, ancient artefacts and even everyday objects.
Curators in contemporary art galleries or other arts venues may only be responsible for objects in temporary exhibitions.
Generally, curators may be involved in:
The type of museum can also affect the work a curator carries out. In large museums employing many staff, they will often have responsibility for a specialist collection, while in smaller, independent museums they will have a more wide-ranging role, and will often be in overall charge of the museum. In university museums, curators are also expected to contribute to student teaching and academic research programmes.
Other work may include:
- Liaising with schools and other community groups
- Giving presentations and communicating with visitors
- Handling enquiries
- Organising volunteers
The curator may also have a management role, making sure that everything runs smoothly, looking after staff issues, security and insurance, as well as deciding on policy. They may also oversee the restoration of certain artefacts.
In some museums, curators may be called keepers.
Curators usually work around 37 hours a week, sometimes on a rota. Weekend and Bank Holiday work is common, as are late finishes as museums and galleries often stay open late for special exhibitions or private viewings.
Curators may be able to work part time and short-term contracts are common.
The working environment depends on the type of museum or gallery and how busy it is. It might be calm and peaceful, or bustling and lively. Curators usually work indoors.
They may have to do some lifting and carrying, moving crates and boxes of exhibits or paintings.
Some curators may be required to travel, so a driving licence can be useful.
Starting salaries are between £15,500 and £23,000 a year.
There are around 2,500 museums and art galleries in the UK, covering a huge range of subjects. Most are in towns and cities, although some covering rural life and farming are based in the countryside.
Employers include national museums and galleries, as well as smaller, independent institutions run by local authorities, universities and charities. Museums and galleries vary greatly - from small, self-funding, independent museums run by volunteers, to national museums such as the Tate, which employs hundreds of people and is publicly funded.
Freelance and consultancy work is becoming more common, with curators employed on short-term contracts to work on specific exhibitions, often in areas in which they have a specific knowledge.
Although the work can be extremely rewarding, there is fierce competition for jobs and opportunities are rare. The pay is may be low in comparison to related professions. However, it is possible to take on a high degree of responsibility early on.
Vacancies may be advertised in the Museums Association's publications Museums Journal and MJ Jobs Extra, as well as on its website. Vacancies may also be found in newspapers, particularly the Guardian on Mondays. The website www.nationalmuseums.org.uk has links to the recruitment pages of all the UK's national museums.
Personal contacts from voluntary work can also be an important source of job opportunities.
Most curators have a degree, often in subjects such as archaeology, history, art or art history. Postgraduate qualifications in museum and heritage studies, or a specialist subject, are becoming more common and are regarded as essential by some employers. It is common to start as an assistant or junior curator.
The minimum qualifications for degree courses are two A levels/three H grades and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3). Equivalent qualifications include BTEC/SQA national diplomas or certificates, or Applied A levels /SVQ's at Level 3. Some courses specify particular subjects and grades.
Postgraduate courses lead to a certificate, diploma or Masters degree, and usually last for one year full time. Many courses are also available part time. Leicester University Museum Studies department offers a distance learning programme. For people wanting to want to work in one of the national museums or with a specialist collection, specialising is a good idea. For instance, a PhD in Egyptology may be more of an advantage than one in museum studies.
Details of validated courses are available from the Creative & Cultural Skills website, www.ccskills.org.uk. The Museums Association has a list of courses that it recognises as a qualifying route to associate membership.
It may be important to get voluntary work experience in a museum, gallery or property, such as a National Trust property. Volunteers or students on work placements can register for units from an NVQ/SVQ to provide evidence of their learning.
There are also a limited number of work-based training schemes on offer, for example:
1. The Victoria and Albert Museum runs a graduate training programme, where recruits are taken on as assistant curators for five years. Training involves a mix of on-the-job development, classroom training and self-directed study.
2. Creative and Cultural Skills has developed a graduate and postgraduate Apprenticeship framework for people already working in museums or galleries. This combines a qualification with skills training.
Curators can work towards NVQ's/SVQ's in Cultural Heritage at Levels 3 and 4, which have routes relating to curatorial work.
There are also NVQ's/SVQ's at Levels 3, 4 and 5 in Cultural Heritage Operations and Cultural Heritage Management.
The Museums Association runs a training scheme called Diversify, which offers work experience and training in museums and galleries to people from an ethnic minority background. Most recruits are graduates working towards postgraduate qualifications in museum studies. Further details can be found on the Museums Association's website.
Regional agencies run training courses for people in work and some museums run their own training courses.
Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is available to all members of the Museums Association.
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A museum/art gallery curator should:
Curators may need to move around the country to gain experience, especially if they work in a smaller museum, which may have fewer opportunities for promotion.
Large museums have a more structured promotional path and it may be possible to move up to management and museum director levels.
Creative & Cultural Skills,
4th Floor, Lafone House,
Weston St, London SE1 3HN
Tel: 020 7015 1800
24 Calvin Street, London E1 6NW
Tel: 020 7426 6910
Northern Ireland Museums Council,
6 Crescent Gardens, Belfast BT7 1NS
Tel: 028 9055 0215
Scottish Museums Council,
The Stack, Papermill Wynd,
McDonald Road, Edinburgh EH7 4QL
Tel: 0131 550 4100
Additional resources for job seekers and those already in a job.