Types of Museum Staff – Managers, Administrators, Projectionists & More
Director. The head honcho. The big cheese. In most museums this is an administrative position – the ship of state is following a proscribed course and the director is only nominally directing its path.
But in some museums, the director is the leader. The good side of the job is that it is exciting, sometimes glamorous, always challenging – trying to do too much with too little. The bad side is when the board turns nasty or when the museum isn’t doing well, the director gets the ax. Keep your bags packed and chin up. Background required? Whatever the board thinks it needs. And most boards have not the least clue.
Read the position description closely. It will probably tell you what the museum’s issues are and what the board is looking for. Boards often hire what they are looking for (the stated need) instead of what they want, so listen attentively. Some will value business skills or fund-raising abilities. Others will look for a person with a good media or public presence. Technical skills sometimes are valued, often not.
This is the one museum position that reports to the board of directors – a group of nonprofessional civic or corporate leaders or wealthy individuals.
The director hires and fires the staff. Turnover amongst directors is high as many boards tend to meddle.
Check out the tenure of the preceding directors and, if each has been short, find out why. Salaries are high relative to other staff members. For medium sized museums, the director’s salary is about the same as for a school principal. For large museums it approaches the salary of the superintendent of public schools. There are many exceptions to this rule of thumb.
Business manager. In smaller museums this is a bookkeeper on steroids. In larger museums, this is a CFO job. Somebody has to know where the money is and where it’s going to come from. If the director is a specialist in a tropical fish, he or she is probably naïve in business matters.
Here is an opportunity to run a small business with unparallel variety of challenges.
Curator. The director gets the headlines, but the curator has the primo position. Once the curator puts rear end in the seat, she is likely to keep it there. Life is good. Pursue your academic calling with lots of freedom and less publish-or-perish angst. Usually insulated from the whims of board members, you’re on your own. But you have to have the gravitas – a Ph.D. helps.
Some people are predicting a substantial rise (over 20%) in the number of curator ships over the next ten years. Most museums require at least a master’s degree in the curator’s area of expertise. For research-based positions, good grant-writing skills are a must. Average salary is about $50,000.
Conservator. This position requires a high degree of technical skills. They won’t let you play with a Rembrandt unless they’re convinced you’re beyond paint by numbers. A background in science coupled with art, history, archaeology or other discipline would be a good start. Experience working under a noted expert would be golden.
Educator. This can be the one and only person who teachers classes or the person who directs a department running a million dollars of educational programming. Since museums aren’t schools, teaching pre se is generally not in vogue, but “leading to understanding” is. If you like education, this is a great place to be – no report cards to fill out, no parent-teacher conferences, and no curriculum to follow. Propose the classes you want to teach and off you go.
Exhibit people. An exhibit department needs designers, graphic artists, builders, and repair people. In some museums this is one person or two. In larger museums exhibit departments can be huge, with dozens of people. These are skill-based positions. Show them your portfolio or describe what you can fix and build. The cool part of these jobs is that you’re always working on some new project with a new look and new technologies to learn. If making the same cabinet day after day sounds good to you, don’t work at museums.
Development. Check the turn-over rate. Some museums have a revolving door on the office of this position. People skills are paramount, but clerical skills and computer skills – keeping track of who gives what and when – are important, too. The job entails managing social events, being nice to wealthy jerks, and squeezing people for money. Writing or editing grant proposals is usually part of the job, too. When the money stops flowing, you get going – out the door. But there are museums that retain development directors and there are nice givers – don’t be put off by my cynicism.
Human resources. If the museum has a human resources person or department, it’s pretty big. Experience in the HR field will be required for a job, but experience with museums will not be required.
IT. Internet and networked computers are new at many museums – or don’t yet exist. Small museums can’t afford to have an IT person on board; large museums have to. Having IT skills and the ability to do another job, say exhibit repair, is a great asset in finding a job.
Building maintenance. Experience in building maintenance is key. The specifics required in a museum setting can be learned quickly. Depending on the type of museum temperature and humidity control is demanded. Protection from UV light can be required. What’s important is to ask the curator what he or she requires for each exhibit or gallery and know how to make it happen.
Guide or demonstrator. These people-orientated positions are pure fun -if and only if you really like people. Show potential employers your enthusiasm for learning, customer service skills, and flexibility. You provide the public their only human contact while inside the museum so a great guide can transform even a weak museum into a great experience for visitors. A bad guide can ruin the experience regardless of how good a museum might be.
Guard. These positions can be jobbed out to a security company or they can be employees of the museum. All the Hollywood movies aside, thefts of major art works at museums are rare. Most guards spend most of their time pointing visitors to the bathrooms. Some qualifications are required: experience with a security company, a previous job in law enforcement, or in the armed forces.
Animal curator. Zoos, aquaria, and science museums use animal curators. They may go by different names but the job is to care for the living collections. A degree in biology plus experience with animals is your ticket in. Find out what the specifics of the job are. Chopping lettuce four hours a day is probably not why you got that degree in wildlife biology. People without degrees can get these jobs sometimes.
Membership administrator. Computer skills and a pleasant personality on the telephone are the keys to success. Throw in some graphic design skills for invitations and newsletters and you’ve got the job.
Projectionist. Large museums with IMAX or comparable systems require large format protectionists. Can you lift a 200 pound reel of 70 mm film? (Neither can I). Best advice is to get experience volunteering and then apply when a job becomes available. You’ll get to see a lot of films…or a few films a lot of times.
Aquarist. Knowing how closed circuit aquariums work and being able to diagnose basic fish diseases is a great start. A bachelor’s degree helps, but may not be required. See the aquarist jobs page in our Aquaculture section.
Planetarium operator. The big requirement here is being to see in the dark. Much of the operator’s time is spent talking to crowds of people and pushing the buttons that run the shows. Other time is spent fixing projectors and answering questions. A passion for planets and stars is really the big requirement. It helps if you have a personality that can quiet a crowd and handle rowdy students.
Registrar. Meticulous and exacting are the descriptors for this job. You work in the bowels of the museum trying to figure out if the 1848 gold button is the same item described as the gift from Commander Jones in 1863. When the exhibit staff needs Attila the Hun’s second sword, can you find it? Did we mention that being meticulous is required? Since records are now on computers, computer skills are important too.
Other jobs. As in any business, museums require the skills and expertise from many different fields. Most of these skills are not exclusive to museums: a cabinet maker can make display cases for a museum. What sets the museum jobs apart is the culture and ambience of the institution.