Types of Museum Careers
Archivists, curators, registrars, and conservators preserve, conserve, and take care of works of art and items of historic significance.
Each of type of museum position can entail a variety of overlapping tasks. All can be engaged in organizing exhibits: drawing on their technical expertise to conduct research and write exhibit text and program copy. Curators have expertise in their specialty area to decide which works should be included in an exhibit. At a natural history museum they might conduct field research and collect specimens for the museum's collections. Technical expertise and integrity are the highest qualifications for a curator's position.
Registrars typically control the flow of catalogued materials in and out of the collections storage. They also add new materials to the collections and are responsible for the digital or hard copy of the records. They often work alone, deep in the bowels of the museum. Their reward is working with culturally significant items, protecting those items, and solving puzzles of records.
Archivists preserve important documents, photographs, videos, other recordings, and other valuable items for permanent storage or display. Curators deal with other objects including works of art, textiles, natural history collections, items of historic or cultural importance. The job of Archivists and curators is to describe, catalogue, and analyze, valuable objects for the benefit of researchers and the public.
Archivists and curators may be charged with conducting public educational programs. Some museums offer behind the scenes tours led by curators. Some museums have curators and archivists or conservators teach classes or give lectures in their areas of expertise.
Registrars and archivists maintain records to ensure that in the future people will be able to locate the objects in their charge and know where they came from and their significance. To break into this field you need a bachelor's degree and experience (as a volunteer or paid staff).
Curators acquire, store, and arrange exhibits of the materials within the museums collection or materials that the museum borrows from other collections. It is expected that curators can determine the authenticity of significance of the objects. Most curators have advanced degrees.
Most curators and archivists specialize in a particular field and a time period. A curator of art would not be expected to know history. He or she might specialize even farther in being an expert not in art per se, but in the Dutch Masters or cubism. A natural history museum might employ a platoon of curators to cover most of the major families of plants and animals, along with geology. The collections they curate can be used for research. For example, someone might compare bird specimens collected 100 years ago to those collected today to ascertain changes.
If you get a conservator job you will preserve historic artifacts and works of art. They need a strong background rooted in science to know the best techniques to conserve artifacts and paintings. They are doctors of art and historic objects who stretch the life span of the objects. Because the techniques of conservation are technologically diverse, conservators specialize in a few areas.
Museums that have active programs of collecting materials send their curators to evaluate potential acquisitions. In museums that aren't actively collecting, and most are not, curators, archivists, registrars, and conservators only travel to attend the occasional professional development program or conference.
Training in museum techniques would help land any of these positions. Some colleges offer degrees in archival studies, conservation, or museum studies. Curators need a solid background in their field of interest, with advanced degrees and field experience helpful. Combining degrees in one's field along with museum-specific fields would add value for a job candidate. Experience, of course, trumps training.
The American Association of Museums offers an active calendar of professional training.
The Smithsonian Institution has a comprehensive page showing training they provide and they list training that universities across the US provide.
The American Association of Museums offers its Information Center:
Two sites Specifically for Archivists are: