How to get a job as a curator

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 … (NB these are my personal views, not necessarily those of Historic Royal Palaces!)

1. Do a relevant undergraduate degree – either in the subject in which you hope to specialise, like the history of technology, or ceramics, or natural history, or choose something broad like a general history degree which will allow you to go off in different directions later.

2. Today lots of people do a Masters qualification – either in the area in which he or she hopes to specialise, or more generally in museum studies. The course at Leicester is the gold standard.

3. And then, lots of candidates for curatorial jobs now have a PhD as well.  It’s not essential, but it helps.  At Historic Royal Palaces, about half of us do, and half don’t.  If you’re planning an art history PhD, make sure you’ll be studying objects and artefacts as well as just documents.

4. This one is essential.  You need to volunteer in a museum.  You’ll find it very hard to get paid employment without the experience and contacts you get through voluntary work.  Here’s how to seek voluntary positions at Historic Royal Palaces.

5. The terrible thing about no. 4 is that while you’re working for nothing you’ll need to support yourself somehow.  In an ideal world you’d get a paid internship – but these are hard to come by and you’ll find it very competitive.  We have three at Historic Royal Palaces, and I hope that if we get the money we’ll be able to have some more next year.

6. Once you’ve got some experience, you should look out for adverts for paid positions.  The places to look are: The Guardian, the Leicester University Jobs Desk, and the Museums Association.

7. While you’ve been doing all of the above, it’s vital that you’ll have learned a lot about the types of object you wish to curate.  You’ll need to be comfortable handling, researching and identifying collections items. When you land an interview for a curator’s position, you’ll probably encounter an ‘object test’, which means you’ll be shown a mystery object, and you’ll be asked to say what it is, how old it is, and how it might be best conserved and displayed.  You can’t bluff this!  (If you have no idea what the mystery object is, you might be able to get away with it if you can explain really clearly how you’d set about finding out.)

8. Penultimately, do ask yourself if you really want to be a curator. People tend to use the word as shorthand for museum work of all sorts: perhaps what would suit you best would be museum education, or exhibition design, or fundraising, or visitor operations … museums even need accountants, IT people and cooks if it’s a museum environment that appeals rather than a curator’s work per se.

9. Finally, Alison Baverstock has written a book to help you.  How to Get a Job in a Museum or Art Gallery could be just what you need in your job hunt.  Good luck.

One thought on “How to get a job as a curator

  1. anton

    Hopefully your own television series as well…


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