How to Become an Archivist, Curator, or Museum Worker
Curators often specialize in one time period.
Most archivist, curator, and conservator positions require a master’s degree related to the field in which they work. People often gain experience by working or volunteering in archives and museums. Museum technicians must have a bachelor’s degree.
Archivists. Most employers prefer candidates to have a graduate degree in history, library science, archival science, or records management. Many colleges and universities offer courses or practical training in archival techniques in history, library science, and other similar programs. A few institutions offer master’s degrees in archival studies. Some positions require candidates to have knowledge of the discipline related to a collection, such as computer science, business, or medicine. Many archives offer volunteer or internship opportunities where students can gain experience.
Curators. 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 and 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.
Museum technicians (registrars). Registrars usually need a bachelor’s degree related to the museum’s specialty, training in museum studies, or previous experience working in museums, particularly in designing exhibits. Relatively few schools grant a bachelor’s degree in museum studies; more common are undergraduate minors and tracks of study that are part of an undergraduate degree in a related field, such as art history, history, or archaeology. Students interested in further study might get a master’s degree in museum studies offered in colleges and universities throughout the country. However, many employers feel that, although a degree in museum studies is helpful, a thorough knowledge of the museum’s specialty and museum work experience are more important.
Conservators. When hiring conservators, employers look for a master’s degree in conservation or in a closely related field, together with substantial experience. Only a few graduate programs in museum conservation techniques are offered in the United States. Competition for entry to these programs is very strong. To qualify, a student must have a background in chemistry, archaeology, studio art, and art history, as well as work experience. For some programs, knowledge of a foreign language is helpful. Completing a conservation internship as an undergraduate can enhance admission prospects. Graduate programs last 2 to 4 years, the latter years of which include internship training.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
The Academy of Certified Archivists offers voluntary certification for archivists. Archivists with at least a master’s degree and a year of professional archival experience can obtain the Certified Archivist credential by passing an exam. They must renew their certification periodically by retaking the exam or fulfilling continuing education credits. At this time, only a few employers require or prefer certification.
To gain marketable experience, candidates may have to work part time, as an intern, or even as a volunteer assistant curator or research associate during or after completing their education. Substantial experience in collection management, research, exhibit design, or restoration, as well as database management skills, is necessary for full-time positions.
Continuing education is available through meetings, conferences, and workshops sponsored by archival, historical, and museum associations. Some large organizations, such as the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC, offer in-house training.
Many archives, especially those maintained by one archivist, are small and have limited opportunities for promotion. Archivists typically advance by transferring to a larger archive that has supervisory positions. A doctorate in history, library science, or a related field may be needed for some advanced positions, such as director of a state archive.
In large museums, curators may advance through several levels of responsibility, eventually becoming museum directors. However, curators often start in small local and regional establishments at the beginning of their careers. As they gain experience, they may get the opportunity to work in larger facilities. The top museum positions are highly sought after and competitive. Performing unique research and producing published work are important for advancement in large institutions.
Analytical skills. Archivists, curators, registrars, and conservators need excellent analytical skills to determine the origin, history, and importance of many of the objects they work with.
Computer skills. Archivists should have good computer skills because they use and develop complex databases related to the materials they store and access.
Customer-service skills. Archivists, curators, and registrars work with the general public on a regular basis. They must be courteous and friendly and be able to help users find materials.
Organizational skills. Archivists, curators, registrars, and conservators must be able to store and easily retrieve records and documents. They also must develop logical systems of storage for the public to use.
Technical skills. Many historical objects need to be analyzed and preserved. Conservators must use the appropriate chemicals and techniques to preserve the different objects they deal with. Examples of these objects are documents, paintings, fabrics, and pottery.