So You Want to Work In... Museums
Working for museums is a great way to pursue passions in the arts and business. Liberal Arts students are a good fit with museums because these institutions not only search for candidates who appreciate the arts and humanities, but also who possess creative thinking, communication and organizational skills. This is a key combination because museum projects require the creativity to design or develop the project while also requiring the marketing and business know-how to successfully manage necessary details, promote the project to the public, and assist raising funds in the process.
Students interested in an internship or career in museums should know their academic degree doesn’t have to match the position, though you will be expected to have a certain level of knowledge about the field. For example, a Government major can work in a Marketing or Development department in the Museum of Natural History, if they know how to do the job and have at least a basic knowledge of and interest in the purpose of a natural history museum. This is why work experience in museums is crucial, including internships. Interning allows for hands-on training and networking, which will give you the necessary job skills and contacts. In addition, it will help you decide if a museum career is in your future.
This guide introduces museum departments and staffing and offers tips to help you break into the world of museums.
Education and Training
Education in this field varies depending on the type of institution you are interested in, its size and level of position.
In general, if you want to eventually work in a senior level position at a large institution (i.e., Executive Director at a Smithsonian museum), expect to need a PhD in that discipline or related field and at least 15-20 years of work experience. You will also need to have fundraising experience …so learn how to write grants and to build networks. These are two skills that will NEVER fail you.
Mid-level positions may only require a BA degree, though some program-related positions will want an MA degree, and usually 3-7 years of experience. Most entry-level positions will only require a BA, with 1+ years work experience, or the equivalent through internship experience.
Now that you know how to position yourself, it's time to think about the type of museum you may want to work.
First, most museums are non-profits, meaning their focus is not producing a profit, but on education. Non-profit museums are accountable to the public, so most organize dozens of programs every year to serve the community.
Second, museums also tend to be mission and purpose-driven, so it is important that during a job search, you understand and agree with the institutions’ goals.
Third, museums generate income from a variety of sources (government – local, state, region & federal, grants – corporate & foundation, earned revenue – admission, special events, fundraisers, store, space rental, etc.). Most staff is involved in maintaining the institution’s financial viability in some way, so experience generating income is a definite plus. When researching a museum, consider it’s financially stability to determine the long-term staffing outlook.
Fourth, there are many private art collections in national and international corporations such as Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley, etc. There are also private foundations with their own collections, and individuals. These latter categories are traditionally object-based collections and are sometimes for-profit. Positions with individuals or in corporations are advertised less often, so networking is more important in this area.
This is a list of the most general types of non-profit museums.
- Maritime (naval)
- Natural History
- Specialized (architecture/children/culturally-specific/toys/magic/etc.)
- Libraries (they often times have collections)
The staff size and space capacity of museums can change dramatically. If you are interested in working in a larger institution with numerous departments, the staff tends to be segmented. At a small to mid-sized museum jobs overlap because of less staff. The below list is only a guide as there is no set standard of museum size.
Small – 0 to 15 (0=no paid staff, volunteers only)
Mid – 16 to 40
Large – 41 to 100
Ex-Large – 101+
There are numerous departments to pursue a career in! It is possible to try out different departments in the early stage of your career, though that is less common in higher roles. Depending on the size of the museum, some departments are combined.
Accounting: Tracks expenses, donations, retail income, etc. on an automated accounting system that includes accounts payable, accounts receivable, and all general ledger information. It provides the financial information necessary for management and planning.
Administration: Develops long-range plans and policies, formulates and tracks the budget and museum finances, administers personnel, and ensures the day-to-day operations. In these capacities, it interacts with all museum departments and the Board of Trustees. (often combined in smaller institutions) Office of the Director: The director is responsible for the museum's planning, management, finance, and administration. Office of the Founder: The museum's founder serves as chair of the Board of Trustees. The chair works locally, nationally, and internationally to cultivate a broad range of support for the museum and its programs.
Communications and Marketing: Generates visibility for the museum by promoting stories about exhibitions and other events and activities in the local, national, and international media. It also purchases advertising; creates promotional opportunities; and works with other departments to market their programs.
Curatorial: Oversees, documents, and interprets a museum's permanent collection. It also develops temporary exhibitions, as well as companion catalogues. (A degree in matching discipline required)
Development: Solicits new individual donors, foundation gifts, and corporate memberships. Research, cultivating contacts, and grant writing help realize these goals. The department also coordinates a museum's fundraising efforts (i.e. annual gala/benefit).
Education: Presents public programs, lectures, workshops, and tours for adult and youth audiences for the local community. The department also develops and writes educational materials and provides volunteer, docent, and intern programs.
Exhibition Design/Production: Designs, produces, and installs all exhibitions. It is also responsible for contracting and supervising skilled craftspeople hired for individual exhibitions. (Art training required)
Information Technology: Functions as the "Help Desk" and in-house consultant for technical issues. These positions can often include website and graphic designers.
Library and Research Center: Collects, preserves, and provides information on the museum’s holdings including exhibition books, magazines, etc.
Member Services: Cultivates, acquires, and retains museum members. Services include direct mail, telemarketing, and using a museum's web site and magazine/newsletter to keep members up to date with information. Sometimes Membership is part of Development department because memberships bring in revenue for the institution.
Publications/Editorial: Develops, writes, edits, and produces exhibition catalogues, and sometimes a magazine (if institution has one). It develops book proposals; edits manuscripts submitted for exhibition catalogues and brochures; manages the production of catalogues, brochures, and other printed material; selects and works with writers, designers, printers, and publishers; expands the distribution of publications to the trade and university markets; and arranges permissions to reproduce images of the permanent collection.
Registrar: Cares for and maintains works of art by making condition reports, cataloging the collection, arranging transportation, and coordinating conservation activities. The department establishes and maintains records for all exhibitions and all lenders, donors and borrowers of works of art; and tracks insurance policy fluctuations. (Conservation background traditionally required)
Retail Operations: Responsible for the daily operation of a Museum Shop and online mail order. The department also does research, buying, and development of all products related to the permanent collection and upcoming temporary exhibits. If the museum has a restaurant this department may also oversee that.
Special Events: Administers and oversees facility rentals, exhibition openings and works closely with other departments for large annual or one-time only events. Staff has relationships with a variety of organizations and individuals outside the museum to ensure events occur as necessary.
Facilities: Includes anyone from security to janitorial to restaurant staff. These staff members are in support roles, maintaining the quality and accessibility of the building and ensuring the safety of visitors and the artwork.
Human Resources: Responsible for hiring, well-being and elimination of staff within a museum. They negotiate and maintain a museum’s health and benefits plans, create and enforce office policies and procedures and work to resolve issues between staff members.
Indiana University Libraries – listing of several museum job posting sites.
American Association of Museums Job listings - doesn’t have many entry-level, but can see what they require for higher level positions
Glass Door - find examples of job salaries in the museum field at different institutions
Smithsonian Institution - reviews job types in the various disciplines of the Smithsonian Institution, good reference guide
Museum 2.0 - museum professional blog
Thinking About Exhibits - blog post about museum career search
Stay Gold Pony Boy - blog post about museum career search