For post-academics who love educating people, working with archives, or supporting the arts, museum work could be a natural fit.
Can I continue my academic research in a museum setting?
A museum is one place where your research topic might actually be relevant to the position if you find one that is closely aligned with your subject—for example, living history museums about the era you study, archives featuring a collection of documents relevant to your research, etc. However, as in any non-academic field, remaining open and flexible to jobs that are not directly in your area of content mastery, but rather take advantage of the skills you’ve developed in graduate school, will shift the odds in your favor of finding satisfying employment. Working in a museum can be a very stimulating and intellectually engaging environment, and the intangible rewards can make up for the lower pay relative to the private sector.
Personal Qualities and Background
Personal qualities that are necessary for museum work include creativity and flexibility, especially in smaller museums where resources are tighter. Museum professionals need good interpersonal skills and a commitment to education; working with the public is in the job description of many positions at museums. Curiosity and a strong drive to solve problems in novel ways are two qualities that will serve a museum professional well.
Though there are an increasing number of academic programs preparing students for museum work, many professionals still think that academic work in the relevant subject area coupled with on-the-job training is the preferable route to employment.
Salary surveys are published by some museum professional organizations, and there was talk in 2011 of compiling regional salary surveys into one national survey. These documents are typically available for purchase, costing between $30-75, but the New England Museum Assocation publishes one that is free to download. Salaries for museum professionals are typically lower than in the private sector, but often come with good benefits packages, plus the rewards of working with precious artifacts and fulfilling the museum's role as a public trust.
The duties of a curator include studying and interpreting the collection, organizing exhibitions, and publishing articles about the collection and the curator’s research field. They are “directly responsible for the care and academic interpretation of all objects, materials, and specimens belonging to or lent to the museum; recommendations for acquisition, deaccession, attribution and authentication; and research on the collections and the publication of the results of that research” (AAM 20). Curators’ responsibilities may also necessitate work with electronic databases and posting information on the museum’s website. Knowledge of digital imaging and copyright law is essential in these circumstances.
To qualify for a curatorship, you must have an advanced degree in the subject area. An MLS degree is helpful but may not be required. Museum internships are essential, and volunteer work is highly recommended, especially if you don’t have a MLS degree. The Smithsonian is a good place for training, and they award dozens of research fellowships annually. To find curator jobs, see the American Association of Musuems (AAM) listings, professional organizations (listed below), The Chronicle of Higher Education, and higheredjobs.com.
Exhibition managers and developers work with curators, educators, and other staff members to bring exhibits to fruition. The job involves a lot of project management, including budgeting and managing the team. A variety of backgrounds are appropriate: degrees in business, design, communications, education, arts/museum administration, or subject area, so applicants from the liberal arts would face a lot of competition from other fields. Experience working in a museum is definitely preferred. For exhibition management jobs, see the AAM listing, including “Museum Marketplace” for exhibition consulting jobs, The Exhibitionist, and museum websites.
Librarians and archivists provide access to information and maintain sources of information. See the Library guide for more information about what these jobs entail. For library or archive work in a museum, usually an undergraduate degree in the subject area and MLS or MIS is required. Database experience is definitely required. For archivists, experience working with objects in institutional setting is required. Many professional organizations advertise these types of jobs, including the American Library Association, the Special Libraries Association, the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators, the Academy of Certified Archivists, and the Society of American Archivists.
Education workers in museums might be found under many possible titles: Educator/Volunteer Manager, Director of Education, Programs Manager, or Director of Outreach. Museum educators work to broaden access to and awareness of the museum’s holdings through a wide variety of educational programs. These “may encompass educational exhibitions, printed materials such as self-guides, demonstrations, classes, tours, films, lecture [sic], special events, workshops, teacher training programs, school or other outreach programs as well as docent/guide training." Undergraduate degrees in education or the relevant subject area are required, and advanced degrees are also welcome. Additionally, strong candidates should have experience in teaching or working with the public—experience you’ll already have if you have taught in graduate school. For museum educator jobs, look at the AAM’s Educators Committee as well as the Committee on Audience Research and Evaluation, and at the Journal of Museum Education.
Information Technology Specialist
Even more than education directors, positions in IT might go under a variety of titles, including Information Officer; Digital Archivist; Visual Resources Curator, etc. An IT professional at a museum is responsible for maintaining the museum’s database of holdings, retrieving and disseminating information, and perhaps maintaining the website. Closely related to digital humanities jobs in academia, this is a lively area of professional possibilities, but the future is uncertain. IT professionals might be involved in projects that will end at some point, like archiving a major collection or creating a database that is labor-intensive for a period of time but then only needs basic maintenance.
For IT jobs at museums, an undergraduate degree in the subject area plus a graduate degree in MLS, IS, or IT are preferred. Database experience is required. To find these jobs go to the Museum Computer Network listserv or the Visual Resources Association.
• Check out the LACS “So You Want to Work In…Museums” page
• Research UT and Austin area museums
• Volunteer at a museum to see if it suits you and to gain experience
• Apply for an internship
• Visit the LACS library in FAC 18 to read more
Camenson, Blythe. Careers for History Buffs and Others Who Learn from the Past. 3rd ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print.
- Lots of good detail about what it’s like to have history-related jobs]
- History or living-history museum jobs discussed on page 25-27 and 41-60
- Profile of Charles McGovern, curator at Smithsonian’s American History Museum 95-98
Camenson, Blythe. Careers for Scholars & Other Deep Thinkers. 2nd ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print.
- List of museum associations under “Careers for Scholars”
- Profile of Charles McGovern, curator at Smithsonian’s American History Museum (95-98)
American Association of Museums. The Official Museum Directory. Washington, D.C: American Association of Museums, 2009.
- Find in PCL. Updated yearly. Organized by region.
American Association of Museums. Careers in Museums: A Variety of Vocations. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 1994. Print.
- Biographies of museum professionals in 33-48; read to get an idea of the background and career trajectories
Schlatter, N. Elizabeth. Museum Careers: A Practical Guide for Novices and Students. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2008. Print.
Journal of Museum Education
American Association of Museums - Must join AAM to view jobs listings. Discount available for current students.
Advisory Council on Historic Preservation
American Arts Alliance
American Association for Museum Volunteers
American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works
Association of College and University Museums and Galleries
Association for Living Historical Farms and Agricultural Museums
International Association of Museum Facility Administrators
International Council on Monuments and Sites
Museum Education Roundtable
1. American Association of Museums, Careers in Museums: A Variety of Vocations (Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 1994), 8.
2. Elizabeth Schlatter, Museum Careers: A Practical Guide for Novices and Students (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2008), 33-34.
3. American Association of Museums, Careers in Museums, 20. 4.Blythe Camenson, Opportunities in Museum Careers, 1st ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006), 92.
5. American Association of Museums, Careers in Museums, 20.