The UK boasts some of the best museums and galleries in the world. Some truly amazing things can be seen in these cultural institutions, from the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum and the massive Camarasaurus skeleton in the entrance hall of the Natural History Museum to John Millais’ Ophelia at the Tate Britain and Stuart Pearson Wright’s portrait of J.K. Rowling, which currently hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Museum/gallery curators are the people who bring these wonderful collections to our museums and art galleries, so that they can be used to inspire, educate and amuse the populace.
Curators aren’t only responsible for procuring paintings, sculptures, artefacts and relics, looking after them and displaying them for the enjoyment of the public. They also invest a large part of their time in other essential activities which help the museum to function effectively, such as fundraising, marketing, networking, financial management, stakeholder management and HR. Indeed, each and every curator has a truly multifunctional role.
Understandably, this varies from museum to museum, but, generally, if you enter this line of work, you will be responsible for attending auctions, acquiring new pieces, categorising recently procured items and maintaining databases.
You may also be responsible for liaising with other museums around the world to organise loans from time to time. Indeed, if you have a temporary exhibition coming up, you may wish to borrow a work of art or an artefact for a short period of time. Consequently, you will need to negotiate the terms of the loan, organise the logistics of everything and sort out the finances.
Alongside a team of exhibition officers, you will also conduct research, liaise with artists or collectors, decide which pieces will feature in each exhibition, contribute to the design and layout of everything, write informative captions for displays, and oversee the installation of interactive modules and other new-fangled things which are designed to enhance the visitor experience. Finally, you will be responsible for recruiting, managing and training junior staff.
Salary & benefits
Trainee curators tend to earn between £15,000 and £20,000 per annum. Once you have gained a wealth of experience, however, your salary could increase to anywhere between £21,000 and £32,000 a year.
Some senior curators who work for major museums and galleries can earn up to £60,000 and beyond.
Museum/gallery curators typically work five days a week from nine-to-five, although extra evening and weekend work may be required from time-to-time, especially during the last few weeks before an exhibition launches.
To enter this profession you will need an undergraduate degree in any subject. Generally though, a degree in a subject such as history, fine art, history of art, museum studies, classics, archaeology, war studies, anthropology or geography will be perfect for roles in art galleries, historical museums and places of cultural significance, such as the V&A, Imperial War Museum and the Jorvik Viking Centre.
On the other hand, a scientific, engineering or I.T.-focused degree will be useful if you want to work in an establishment such as the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum or the Eden Project.
A relevant postgraduate degree in museum studies, or a PhD in your specialist area, can also boost your chances of securing an entry-level position.
Whatever route you decide to take, it’s essential that you gain relevant work experience in a museum or gallery. This is an incredibly competitive area of work, so volunteering with a museum, gallery or similar institution is a great idea.
Training & progression
Some people join the industry as part of a trainee curator programme, such as the British Museum’s Future Creators scheme. Others climb the career ladder from lower-level positions, such as an exhibitions officer.
Once you’ve got your foot in the door, the majority of your training will be done ‘on-the-job’, and it is likely that you will be given the opportunity to take advantage of training courses and professional development schemes, offered by organisations such as the Museums Association.
Opportunities for career progression within large museums and galleries are limited to senior curator, supervisory and managerial positions. Freelance curatorial work is another option.