Art History Careers as Curators, Conservators and Museum Technicians

Working in museums as curators, conservators or museum technicians is a popular career choice for graduates with an art history degree. Generally speaking, curators are responsible for overseeing collections of artwork, jewelry, fine china or other historic items, while conservators and museum technicians restore items or prepare them to be displayed.

As part of their jobs, museum workers generally handle collections including acquiring, cleaning, storing and exhibiting items. They also plan and set up exhibits, conduct tours and workshops for members of the public, and attend a variety of events and meetings to generate publicity and support for the museum and connect with funders, private collectors and donors. Depending on their positions they may also carry out research projects, or supervise junior staff, students, interns, and volunteers.

Art Museum curators are responsible for managing art museums. Their job includes acquiring authenticated items which are then stored or exhibited as part of the museum’s collection. The curator handles negotiations for item purchases, sales, exchanges, or loans, and they may need to authenticate and categorize an entire collection or its individual components.

Curators are often involved in managing any research projects or educational programs that a museum carries out, and today they also find themselves involved in tasks like writing or reviewing grant proposals, journal articles and publicity materials in order to raise funds or increase public awareness about their museum. And curators are often the public face of their organization at conventions, meetings and other events that offer them the chance to connect with donors and sponsors as well as the general public.

Depending on the size of the museum they work at, an art museum curator may be responsible for the museum’s entire collection, or specialize in only a small part of it like American Folk Art during the 1800’s, or the French Impressionists. As well as being responsible for taking care of the collection and doing related research, some curators may also find themselves handling managerial tasks relating to the museum’s operations. Again, this depends on the size of the museum, with larger museums generally having separate staff to handle the business aspects of the organization while the curators concentrate on the artwork.

Museum technicians, who are also known as registrars, usually work with the curator to prepare and take care of items in the museum’s collection. Museum technicians can also assist outside researchers who need access to items in the collection, and answer questions from the public.

Art Conservators are specialists who are responsible for preserving, repairing, managing and documenting works of art. They may need to do considerable historical and scientific research to determine the original appearance of a piece of art, and then document their findings. Conservators may treat items to minimize further deterioration, or they may go as far as restoring an altered item to the form or color that the artist intended it to have.

As part of their work, art conservators use a wide range of tools and techniques including x rays, UV or infrared lighting, chemical testing, microscopes, and other laboratory equipment to examine an object’s condition, and decide on the best way to preserve it.

And in addition to preserving and restoring art, many conservators also conduct research on topics related to the collections they work on, and submit their findings to scientific and scholarly journals.

Training for Museum Jobs

Most art museums require their curators to have a master’s degree in art or art history, or in museum studies. In fact, earning both a master’s degree in museum studies (museology) and in art or art history or fine arts would likely give prospective art curators a strong competitive advantage in a tight job market. And completing an internship as part of your undergraduate or graduate career would also be helpful.

In fact, to gain the hands-on experience which is so important in landing a job as a curator, working part-time while pursuing your graduate or undergraduate degree, or even serving as a volunteer assistant curator or research associate for a short while after graduation may be necessary. In the coming years it is increasingly evident that real-world experience in areas like collection management, exhibit design, independent research, and restoration, as well as database management skills and mobile technology, will be important talents that no curator can afford to be without if he want to be hired for a permanent museum position.

In some cases, particularly in smaller museums, it might be possible for someone with only a bachelor’s degree in art or art history to get a position as a curator. However, if you are interested in pursuing a career at a small museum, you should keep in mind that curators at these institutions frequently take on administrative and managerial responsibilities as well. For this reason, it would be wise to make sure that you have taken courses in business administration, marketing, public relations, and fundraising as well as art history.

As they gain job experience, curators may advance through increasing levels of responsibility, eventually becoming museum directors. And curators who start in smaller organizations may transfer to larger museums as they get more experience. However, as in all fields, there is tremendous competition for positions at the most prestigious and best-known museums. Curators who have conducted and published individual research usually have the edge in securing these top spots, although those who have demonstrated exceptional fundraising or collection acquisition skills are also in demand.

Art museum registrars usually only need a bachelor’s degree in art or art history. In some cases simply having previous experience working in museums is sufficient, especially if that experience included designing exhibits. Registrars who are interested in advancing in their field might pursue a master’s degree in museum studies. But before committing to that time and expense, it would be wise to check with the museum to be sure that the degree would actually be helpful. Unless the registrar is interested in becoming a curator, it may turn out that getting a degree in museum studies may not bring the increased pay or responsibility that the registrar had expected.

Art Conservators usually must have a master’s degree in conservation coupled with job experience in order to advance in their field. There are only a few graduate-level museum conservation programs in the US, which means that competition for these programs is extremely high. Only students with a solid background in chemistry, studio art, archaeology, and art history are usually successful. One of the best ways to prepare for a graduate conservation program is to apply to work as an apprentice or intern at a conservation program while completing an undergraduate degree in art history, fine arts, or a related field.

Employment opportunities for curators are projected to grow by 25 percent during the decade form 2010-2020, which is much faster than the 14% predicted for all occupations. This is likely due to an increase in public interest in art, which is expected to boost museum attendance in the near future, leading museums to increase their facility sizes and hours of operation.

However, even with this increase, the number of curator job openings is still expected to remain low relative to the number of qualified candidates, meaning that there will be very strong competition for available positions. And even though the job outlook is currently good, unexpected recessions can cause budget cuts for museums, which will reduce demand for curators and other museum workers.

Meanwhile, employment of museum technicians and conservators is projected to grow by just 7 percent, which is only half of the average for all occupations. This means that registrars and conservators will also face extremely strong competition when applying for jobs. However, conservator program graduates who have at least one foreign language and are willing to relocate to find a job should have the best chances at employment.

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