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What is a Museum Curator?

An interest in art or history might lead someone into a career as a museum curator.

The word curator originally comes from Latin and has the meaning of someone who is a guardian or overseer. That meaning is still applicable today, as a curator in a museum is someone who oversees either an entire museum collection or a specific collection within a museum. It’s important that a curator have a background and education in the specific field in which they curate. That means many curators have studied art, art history, or other types of history or science, depending on the type of museum in which they work.

The Role of a Curator

Museums, especially large ones, often have many different positions which may be easy to confuse at first. It can help to understand the role of the curator by looking at it in relation to other possible museum roles, such as director and conservator. A museum director is usually the person who is charge of the entire museum, overseeing the staff and raising funds. In general, the buck stops with the director.

A curator has an administrative or managerial role and usually is responsible to the director. A curator manages the given items in the museum’s collection. They may be responsible for deciding what items the museum wants to acquire for its permanent collection or changing exhibits, and then responsible for obtaining those items for the museum, getting them transported, and overseeing how they are set up. It’s an exciting position for anyone who wants to really influence a museum’s collection. Curators often represent the museum and its pieces to the public as well. They might be called on to answer questions about the history of a given piece of art or artifact.

A conservator is more directly responsible for the physical well-being of the actual piece being added to the collection. Conservators have skills and education in preservation. They are the ones who make decisions about whether or not a painting or other artifact needs special handling, repair, or restoration. Sometimes conservators are called by other names such as preparator or conservation technician. They generally work more with the artifacts themselves and less with the public.

Educational Background Needed for a Museum Curator

Most curators have at least one graduate degree, and sometimes two. Because the job combines an in-depth knowledge of art or history with administrative skills, it can be important to study both the specific area in which you hope to curate as well as a degree in museum studies. Curators may need skills such as public speaking and grant writing in addition to having a knowledge of art or history.

A curator has a real opportunity to influence what kinds of things a given museum exhibits temporarily or permanently. Becoming a museum curator can take many years, but it can be a rewarding job for someone who has a love for shaping effective learning spaces where people can learn more about the past.

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