Curators work in museums and similar institutions that serve as repositories for objects that document and explain the artistic, historical, or scientific conditions of human existence. Such settings can be thought of as distinct types of "information systems" that exist to disseminate the kind of knowledge that resides in representative objects or specimens. Like books, documents, or records, museum objects are made useful when they are arranged according to particular principles and are disseminated on the basis of their context and communicative capacity. Within a museum setting, it is the curator who performs this function, using professional expertise to generate vital associations among objects to satisfy the curiosity of the general public and to meet community educational and scholarly needs. Curators are found in art museums, children's museums, history museums, maritime museums, and science and technology museums, in botanical gardens and arboretums, and in cultural societies and zoos. The curator oversees selection, acquisition, organization, preservation, and presentation of museum objects and collections.
Like their information professional peers— librarians and archivists—curators make sure their particular information system responds to its environment by applying specific organizing conventions and interpretive sensibilities to museum collections. They do this by carrying out research about museum objects and by making sure artifacts are displayed in exhibitions in ways that are meaningful to museum patrons. The curator thus establishes or reinforces the circumstances of the existence of artifacts, their relationship to life, culture, or custom, and their relevance both to the museum's mission and its audience. In doing this, the curator guarantees the institution's survival and its commitment to the purpose for which it was created.
In addition to applying rules of organization by creating exhibitions that display and interpret museum collections, curators are in charge of collection development, selecting items that fit the institutional mission. They also direct conservation and preservation of museum objects. Curators are frequently involved in the public relations and fund-raising activities of their museums. They may supervise the creation of flyers, brochures, webpages, or other descriptive and educational materials that accompany exhibitions. Curators may need to write grants to secure funding for museum projects. They frequently attend, speak at, or manage fund-raising or other special events that help their institutions maintain a positive public image. Consequently, curators need to be well informed and have a range of communication skills, which come from a mixture of education and experience.
Undergraduate school may be the place where a future curator begins to develop the subject expertise in art, history, or science that leads to work in a specific museum environment. Graduate education provides training in organizational principles that are appropriate to their craft and introduces future curators to the range of possible job responsibilities. Like librarians, archivists, and other information professionals, curators must learn organizational principles that reflect a mixture of museum purpose, the unique characteristics of the type of information found in museums, and best practices for making this kind of information available. Although some colleges and universities offer undergraduate education in the study of museums, or museology, curators typically gain expertise and credentials in graduate programs of museum or cultural studies or of museum science.
Graduate programs offer instruction in museum administration and management, preservation of materials, collection management, exhibition design, interpretation, public programming, and museum education. Courses emphasize the history, function, and philosophical and societal roles of museums. They also cover different museum types, review issues of contemporary museum practice and professional concern, analyze the technical aspects of museum work, and examine monetary or other resources available to museums. Future curators get instruction in the planning, design, and production of exhibitions, become skilled in translating museum exhibition concepts into detailed plans or models, and learn about preservation and restoration strategies. Classes in museum education teach the students how to create and deliver successful museum-based instruction to a variety of audiences.
Requirements for a graduate degree in museum or cultural studies or in museum science usually include an internship or practicum component that gives students experience with regular museum activities. Students get to work in an actual museum setting where they have the opportunity to put their classroom knowledge of collection development strategies, exhibition design, conservation techniques, and administrative protocols into action. They may get direct insight into museum research and grant-writing efforts and get to do this kind of work as well. An internship or practicum also affords students the chance to meet future colleagues. Moreover, graduate education generally helps develop the level of analytical, decision-making, and communicative skills that curators need to do an effective job for their institution.
Organizations such as the American Association of Museums, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the International Council of Museums advocate for or provide services or funding to museums. These entities give guidance and support for continuing education and professional development activities for curators and other museum staff. They offer or suggest programs that help curators stay abreast of the best practices in object acquisition, conservation, interpretation, and presentation. These programs may feature advice about working with members of the museum's board, other members of the museum's staff, and members of the museum's community. The American Association of Museums, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the International Council of Museums also help make curators aware of funding opportunities related to museum activities. The American Association of Museums issues standards for museum accreditation. Their standards prescribe appropriate education and expertise for curators and other staff members. The Institute of Museum and Library Services, established by the United States Museum and Library Services Act of 1996, works in cooperation with the American Association of Museums on museum assessment and conservation assessment programs. Curators are likely to be involved in determining the eligibility of their museums for these programs. The International Council of Museums, which counts museums of all types and from various countries among its membership, maintains a committee devoted to recommending educational standards and has adopted a code of ethics for curators and other museum professionals.
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Tonyia J. Tidline