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A curator is someone who oversees collections, such as artwork and historical items, and may conduct public service activities for an institution. Most work in museums, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, or historical sites.
Many objects and documents are important or historically significant. Curators preserve and organize the display of these materials. The work of a curator typically involves the following:
Curators manage museums, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, nature centres, and historical sites. The museum director often is a curator. Curators direct the acquisition, storage, and exhibit of collections, including negotiating and authorizing the purchase, sale, exchange, or loan of collections. They also may authenticate, evaluate, and categorize the specimens in a collection. Curators often oversee and help conduct the institution’s research projects and related educational programs.
Today, an increasing part of a curator’s duties involves fundraising and promotion, which may include writing and reviewing grant proposals, journal articles, and publicity materials. In addition, many curators attend meetings, conventions, and civic events.
Most curators specialize in a particular field, such as botany, art, or history. Those who work in large institutions may be highly specialized. A large natural history museum, for example, might employ separate curators for its collections of birds, fishes, insects, and mammals. Some curators take care of their collections, some do research related to items in the collection, and others do administrative tasks. In small institutions with only one or a few curators, one curator may be responsible for a number of tasks, from taking care of collections to directing the affairs of the museum.
Because most curators work in museums, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, nature centers, and historical sites, their working conditions vary. Some spend their time working with the public, providing reference assistance and educational services. Some curators conduct research or process records, which reduces the opportunity to work with others. Those who restore and set up exhibits or work with bulky, heavy record containers may lift objects, climb, or stretch.
Curators in large institutions may travel extensively to evaluate potential additions to the collection, organize exhibits, and conduct research. However, for curators in small institutions, travel may be rare.
Most museums require curators to have a master’s degree in an appropriate discipline of the museum’s specialty—art, history, or archaeology—or in museum studies.
Some employers prefer that curators have a doctoral degree, particularly for positions in natural history or science museums. Earning two graduate degrees—in museum studies (museology) and a specialized subject—may give candidates an advantage in a competitive job market.
In small museums, curator positions may be available to people with a bachelor’s degree. Because curators, particularly those in small museums, may have administrative and managerial responsibilities, courses in business administration, public relations, marketing, and fundraising are recommended. For some positions, applicants need to have completed an internship of full-time museum work, as well as courses in museum practices.
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Zoo exhibits require careful planning and management. A curator in a zoo is responsible for a wide range of activities related to the management of a variety of animals, including mammals, reptiles and amphibians, birds and sea creatures.
As the role of the curator has become an increasingly desirable one, the number of courses available to study curating has increased.
I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that most days, someone, somewhere sends me an email asking how to get a job as a curator. So here are my suggestions for what to do …
Julien Parsons read archaeology then rose from a cataloguer in Birmingham to helping Exeter become museum of the year.