What’s it like to work in a museum or gallery?

If you’ve read The Da Vinci Code, you might be worried that your career in an art gallery will constantly be interrupted by violent murders with a religious subtext. Alternatively, if you’re considering working in a museum, you might think that you’ll be rearranging displays of prehistoric men all day like Ross Gellar does in Friends.

Sure, your career is going to be a lot of hard work and it may be eventful from time-to-time, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be challenged on a daily basis by mystical exhibits that come to life and cause chaos like they do in Night at the Museum.

Museums and art galleries are incredibly important. They help to define our national identity, they give us fantastic cultural experiences, they educate us, they amaze us and they make sure historic artefacts and valuable works of art are kept safe and sound in controlled environments.

The range of people that work in museums and art galleries, from the curators to the gift shop assistants, work their socks off to make sure our experiences are as brilliant as possible.

Starting a career in the museums and galleries industry…

If you pursue a career in this area, you could be working for some of the most important and fascinating cultural institutions in the world. Career opportunities are available in locations across the UK. You could work in national museums or galleries, such as the British Museum or the Tate Modern; regional/local institutions, such as the Lindisfarne Priory and Museum; university museums or galleries, such as the Courtauld Gallery; or independent organisations, such as the Clink Prison Museum.

Although jobs in museums and galleries can be relatively low paid, these career paths are incredibly competitive. Consequently, it’s a good idea to start off by getting involved with a volunteering scheme at a museum or gallery to build up your work experience.

Getting a relevant degree in a subject such as history of art or archaeology would be preferable for entry-level jobs, but not necessary by any means. You could even consider doing a postgraduate degree in museum studies or art conservation to give yourself a leg up into an entry-level position. However, make sure you select your course and institution wisely! Alternatively, you could study for a museum-related NVQ, such as the V&A’s museum technician and community arts management courses.

What does a curator do?

Curators are the people that make the important creative and business decisions. They decide what gets exhibited, where it gets displayed and how it is presented. Moreover, these guys look after their institution’s collection, working behind the scenes and making sure everything is meticulously catalogued.

Curators also manage the budget for their institution’s exhibitions. They might be attending exciting auctions or pottering around antique stores in search of treasures and other finds. If you want to become a curator, you will need to have a certain amount of commercial acumen and a shrewd eye for a bargain. You will effectively be the buyer for the museum or art gallery. You will be spending other people’s money, so you’ll have to get it right. You’ll need to know what is authentic and what would be a good addition to the collection.

Curators are also required to build up a network of contacts and liaise with clients on a frequent basis. Some curators may even commission artworks for specific exhibitions from well-known artists.

It’s highly unlikely that you will begin your career as a senior curator. The normal entry-route would involve working as a junior or assistant curator. However, these opportunities are few and far between and competition is incredibly fierce.

What other gallery or museum-related careers can I pursue?

If you want to get into the conservation and restoration side of museum and gallery careers, you will be working behind the scenes; using your artistic knowledge and steady hand to care for old artefacts and renovate works of art. For more detail on careers in this area, check out the Arts Heritage: Conservation & Restoration subsector of the Art & Design sector now!

If you want to get out on the floor of the museum or gallery and interact with the visitors, you could look into becoming a museum education officer. You will be giving talks, delivering presentations, leading interactive workshops and acting as a guide for members of the public. You will need to develop a detailed and extensive knowledge of the museum and the pieces on display. You will be passionate, engaging and friendly and have excellent communication skills.

Most museums and galleries are usually strapped for cash and now rely on donations from wealthy benefactors, the public and charitable trusts. Consequently, larger institutions now employ people in specific fundraising departments. You would be networking with a range of people and organisations to solicit donations. For more information on this line of work, check out the Fundraising subsector of the Charity, Not-for-profit & NGO sector now!

Museums and galleries aren’t just laid back, care-free organisations. They are businesses and need to be managed and run effectively. Consequently, these institutions rely on the hard work of administrators, gallery managers, museum exhibition officers, exhibition designers and people that work in corporate services departments, such as HR, marketing and finance.

So, fear not: you won’t have a monkey on your back, or self-flagellating monks on your tail, but you will get genuine excitement (none of that hair-raising stuff Tom Hanks and Ben Stiller find themselves embroiled in) and satisfaction from a career in the competitive museums and galleries industry.

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