Museums are exciting places to work. The American Association of Museums’ web site references recent survey data suggesting that there are approximately 17,500 museums in the United States alone and a 1999 estimate that American museums receive 865 million visits per year.
These institutions encompass a variety of disciplines, types, and formats, incorporating a multitude of skills and interests on the part of staff and the public. They include:
- Arboretum, botanical garden
- Archive, specialty library
- Art museum, art center
- Children’s museum or youth museum
- Comprehensive museum
- Conservation/preservation centers
- Cultural focus/affinity group museum
- History museum, historic house museum, historic site
- Historical society, historical association
- Natural history museum, nature center
- Science technology center, planetarium
Within these diverse and dynamic environments, opportunities abound for career exploration and professional positions.
Museums rely on staff with special training to carry out their multiplex missions to educate and engage visitors, maintain and protect their collections, and support and conduct research that advances the field. Related to these goals, museum positions fall into four broad categories: Administration, Development, and Finance; Collections Conservation, Curatorial Practice, and Stewardship; Education and Public Learning; Visitor and Support Services.
The number and variety of professional job types within these four categories depends on a museum’s size, mission, collection, and financial structure. Large comprehensive museums, for example, have many different departments that require a large number of staff members with specialized functions and skills. At medium-sized museums, some staff members may have job descriptions that combine certain curatorial, collections, educational, or administrative roles. Finally, small museums may have only a few staff members, each of whom must possess a wide variety of museum skills and manage a range of responsibilities as "generalists."
Many museums also rely heavily on the invaluable services of volunteers and interns. The roles and responsibilities of volunteers and interns – even within a single museum – can vary greatly but it is very common for them to take on substantive duties that contribute directly to the museum’s operations and goals. For those interested in exploring the museum world, these positions provide a hands-on entrée into the “behind-the-scenes” workings of these extraordinarily complex institutions. For those more certain about a career in museums, volunteering and interning are key components in building a professional portfolio of experiences.
The possibilities for a museum career are as diverse as the talents and interests of individuals who work in these institutions. Museums pride themselves on exhibiting “the real thing” to the public – objects, living and preserved plants and animals, and natural phenomena that comprise our collective patrimony and the world in which we live – that has the potential to awe and inspire. Consequently, museums are often a target career environment for students in the arts, history, anthropology, archaeology, natural history, science, education, and design.
However, museums are also businesses that, in addition to stewarding and displaying collections, must successfully manage day-to-day administration, attract and satisfy public interest and needs, and maintain financial viability. Therefore, besides curators and exhibition experts, for example, museums also hire accountants, archivists, chefs, computer scientists, human resources personnel, marketing specialists, retailers, and teachers, all of whom bring their special expertise to these unique workplaces that serve the public and promote education and inquiry about our world.
While the range of occupations that relate to museums is broad, there are several common points with respect to academic and professional preparation:
- A well-rounded background in the liberal arts that supports your professional area of specialization, as well as basic science and computer skills, is a sound foundation for any job in a museum. In addition, strength in writing is essential. The written word is used in administrative and scholarly reports, grant applications, exhibition catalogs, brochures, educational materials, academic articles, legal agreements, management policies, interpretive exhibition labeling, and more.
- Museums also value superior academic knowledge of your field as a prerequisite for a professional career. Academic exposure and depth in your specialization is very important, whether your interests lie in cultural, scientific, or historical museums. This is especially the case in functional areas that are highly specialized and extremely competitive such as archaeology/field work, conservation and restoration science, curatorial practice, exhibition design, and research. However, solid academic understanding of your field, whether it is art history, animal science, administration, or technology, will be a critical stepping stone in your museum career development.
- An equally important key to success in the museum field is experiential training. Volunteer positions and/or internships in your area of study, as well as exposure to museums or other non-profit organizations, are both important. This is true for staff whose positions are unique to the museum profession as well as for staff whose positions are also found in other cultural organizations or for-profit enterprises. For positions such as animal handler, conservator, curator, exhibitions designer, and financial officer past work experience in a museum – often including one or more internships – is essential. For jobs in information technology, publishing, retail, visitor services, and volunteer management, transferable skills from previous positions in institutions that share the qualities and characteristics of nonprofits are extremely valuable; a demonstrated affinity for museum and nonprofit concerns is a great edge.
- The following qualities are felt to be essential for museum positions:
* knowledge of the history, philosophy, ethics, and mission of museums
* an understanding of the physical and historical nature of objects
* strong interpersonal skills
* imagination, creativity and resourcefulness
* commitment to public learning
* patience and flexibility
The American Association of Museums [http://www.aam-us.org/] web site is an excellent place to start or expand your exploration of a museum-related career. This organization focuses on all aspects of museums’ operations and addresses the professional roles and needs of their staff.
The Occupational Outlook Handbook is also an invaluable resource prepared by the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. Search this web site by job title, specific occupation, or keyword to locate information relating to museum careers. In your research on this site, be sure to broaden your search beyond “Museums” to include the functional or professional areas that interest you, for example, “Accountant,” “Designer,” “Animal Handler,” “Botanist,” and “Teacher.” You will find summaries of positions and information on training, job outlook, and earnings.