Archivists, curators, and museum technicians work for museums, governments, zoos, colleges and universities, corporations, and other institutions that require experts to preserve important records and artifacts. These workers preserve important objects and documents, including works of art, transcripts of meetings, photographs, coins and stamps, and historic objects.
Archivists and curators plan and oversee the arrangement, cataloguing, and exhibition of collections. They also maintain collections with technicians and conservators. They acquire and preserve important documents and other valuable items for permanent storage or display. They also describe, catalogue, and analyze, valuable objects for the benefit of researchers and the public.
Archivists and curators may coordinate educational and public outreach programs, such as tours, workshops, lectures, and classes, and may work with the boards of institutions to administer plans and policies. They also may research topics or items relevant to their collections.
Although some duties of archivists and curators are similar, the types of items they deal with differ: archivists mainly handle records and documents that are retained because of their importance and potential value, while curators usually handle objects with cultural, biological, or historical significance, such as sculptures, textiles, and paintings.
Archivists collect, organize, and maintain control over a wide range of information deemed important enough for permanent safekeeping. This information takes many forms: photographs, films, video and sound recordings, and electronic data files in a wide variety of formats, as well as more traditional paper records, letters, and documents.
In accordance with accepted standards and practices, archivists maintain records to ensure the long-term preservation and easy retrieval of documents and information. Records may be saved on any medium, including paper, film, videotape, audiotape, computer disk, or DVD. They also may be copied onto some other format to protect the original and to make the records more user accessible. As various storage media evolve, archivists must keep abreast of technological advances in electronic information storage.
Generally, computers are used to generate and maintain archival records. Professional standards for the use of computers in handling archival records, especially electronic, are still evolving. However, computer capabilities will continue to expand and more records will be stored and exhibited electronically, providing both increased access and better protection for archived documents.
Archivists often specialize in an area of history so they can more accurately determine which records in that area qualify for retention and should become part of the archives. Archivists also may work with specialized forms of records, such as manuscripts, electronic records, web sites, photographs, cartographic records, motion pictures, or sound recordings.
Curators administer museums, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, nature centers, and historic sites. The museum director often is a curator. Curators direct the acquisition, storage, and exhibition of collections, including negotiating and authorizing the purchase, sale, exchange, or loan of collections. They are also responsible for authenticating, evaluating, and categorizing the specimens in a collection. Curators often oversee and help conduct the institution's research projects and related educational programs. Today, an increasing part of a curator's duties involves fundraising and promotion, which may include the writing and reviewing of grant proposals, journal articles, and publicity materials, as well as attendance at meetings, conventions, and civic events.
Most curators specialize in a particular field, such as botany, art, paleontology, or history. Those working in large institutions may be highly specialized. A large natural history museum, for example, would employ separate curators for its collections of birds, fishes, insects, and mammals. Some curators maintain their collections, others do research, and others perform administrative tasks. In small institutions with only one or a few curators, one curator may be responsible for a number of tasks, from maintaining collections to directing the affairs of the museum.
Conservators manage, care for, preserve, treat, and document works of art, artifacts, and specimens—work that may require substantial historical, scientific, and archaeological research. They use x rays, chemical testing, microscopes, special lights, and other laboratory equipment and techniques to examine objects and determine their condition and the appropriate method for preserving them. Conservators document their findings and treat items to minimize their deterioration or to restore them to their original state. Conservators usually specialize in a particular material or group of objects, such as documents and books, paintings, decorative arts, textiles, metals, or architectural material. In addition to their conservation work, conservators participate in outreach programs, research topics in their area of specialty, and write articles for scholarly journals. They may be employed by museums or work on a freelance basis.
Museum technicians, commonly known as registrars, assist curators by performing various preparatory and maintenance tasks on museum items. Registrars may also answer public inquiries and assist curators and outside scholars in using collections. Archives technicians help archivists organize, maintain, and provide access to historical documentary materials.
Archivists, curators, and museum workers held about 35,000 jobs in 2020. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up archivists, curators, and museum workers was distributed as follows:
- Museum technicians and conservators - 13,500
- Curators - 13,400
- Archivists - 8,100
The largest employers of archivists, curators, and museum workers were as follows:
- Museums, historical sites, and similar institutions - 34%
- Government - 24%
- Educational services; state, local, and private - 18%
Depending on the size of the institution and the position archivists, curators, and museum workers hold, these workers may spend time either at a desk or with the public, providing reference assistance and educational services. Museum workers who restore and set up exhibits or work with bulky, heavy record containers may have to lift objects, climb ladders and scaffolding, and stretch to reach items.
Most archivists, curators, museum technicians, and conservators work full time.
Archivists in government agencies and corporations generally work during regular business hours. Curators in large institutions may travel extensively to evaluate potential additions to the collection, organize exhibits, and conduct research. For curators in small institutions, however, travel may be rare. Museum technicians may need to work evenings and weekends if their institutions are open to the public during those times.
Education & Training Required
Although archivists earn a variety of undergraduate degrees, a graduate degree in history or library science with courses in archival science is preferred by most employers. Many colleges and universities offer courses or practical training in archival techniques as part of their history, library science, or other curriculum. A few institutions offer master's degrees in archival studies. Some positions may require knowledge of the discipline related to the collection, such as computer science, business, or medicine. There are many archives that offer volunteer opportunities where students can gain experience.
For employment as a curator, most museums require a master's degree in an appropriate discipline of the museum's specialty—art, history, or archaeology—or in museum studies. Some employers prefer a doctoral degree, particularly for curators in natural history or science museums. Earning two graduate degrees—in museum studies (museology) and a specialized subject—may give a candidate a distinct advantage in a competitive job market. In small museums, curatorial positions may be available to individuals with a bachelor's degree. Because curators, particularly those in small museums, may have administrative and managerial responsibilities, courses in business administration, public relations, marketing, and fundraising also are recommended. For some positions, an internship of full-time museum work supplemented by courses in museum practices is needed.
When hiring conservators, employers look for a master's degree in conservation or in a closely related field, together with substantial experience. There are only a few graduate programs in museum conservation techniques in the United States. Competition for entry to these programs is keen; to qualify, a student must have a background in chemistry, archaeology or studio art, and art history, as well as work experience. For some programs, knowledge of a foreign language also is helpful. Conservation apprenticeships or internships as an undergraduate can enhance one's admission prospects. Graduate programs last 2 to 4 years, the latter years of which include internship training. A few individuals enter conservation through apprenticeships with museums, nonprofit organizations, and conservators in private practice. Apprenticeships should be supplemented with courses in chemistry, studio art, and history. Apprenticeship training, although accepted, is a more difficult and increasingly scarce route into the conservation profession.
Museum technicians usually need a bachelor's degree in an appropriate discipline of the museum's specialty, training in museum studies, or previous experience working in museums, particularly in the design of exhibits. Similarly, archives technicians usually need a bachelor's degree in library science or history, or relevant work experience. Relatively few schools grant a bachelor's degree in museum studies. More common are undergraduate minors or tracks of study that are part of an undergraduate degree in a related field, such as art history, history, or archaeology. Students interested in further study may obtain a master's degree in museum studies, offered in colleges and universities throughout the country. However, many employers feel that, while museum studies are helpful, a thorough knowledge of the museum's specialty and museum work experience are more important.
Other Skills Required
The Academy of Certified Archivists offers voluntary certification for archivists. The designation “Certified Archivist” can be obtained by those with at least a master's degree and a year of appropriate archival experience. The certification process requires candidates to pass a written examination, and they must renew their certification periodically.
Archivists need research skills and analytical ability to understand the content of documents and the context in which they were created. They must also be able to decipher deteriorated or poor-quality printed matter, handwritten manuscripts, photographs, or films. A background in preservation management is often required of archivists because they are responsible for taking proper care of their records. Archivists also must be able to organize large amounts of information and write clear instructions for its retrieval and use. In addition, computer skills and the ability to work with electronic records and databases are very important. Because electronic records are becoming the prevalent form of recordkeeping, and archivists must create searchable databases, knowledge of Web technology may be required.
Curatorial positions often require knowledge in a number of fields. For historic and artistic conservation, courses in chemistry, physics, and art are desirable. Like archivists, curators need computer skills and the ability to work with electronic databases. Many curators are responsible for posting information on the Internet, so they also need to be familiar with digital imaging, scanning technology, and copyright law.
Curators must be flexible because of their wide variety of duties, including the design and presentation of exhibits. In small museums, curators need manual dexterity to build exhibits or restore objects. Leadership ability and business skills are important for museum directors, while marketing skills are valuable in increasing museum attendance and fundraising.
How to Advance
Continuing education is available through meetings, conferences, and workshops sponsored by archival, historical, and museum associations. Some larger organizations, such as the National Archives in Washington, D.C., offer such training in-house.
Many archives, including one-person shops, are very small and have limited opportunities for promotion. Archivists typically advance by transferring to a larger unit that has supervisory positions. A doctorate in history, library science, or a related field may be needed for some advanced positions, such as director of a State archive.
In large museums, curators may advance through several levels of responsibility, eventually becoming the museum director. Curators in smaller museums often advance to larger ones. Individual research and publications are important for advancement in larger institutions.
Technician positions often serve as a steppingstone for individuals interested in archival and curatorial work. Except in small museums, a master's degree is needed for advancement.
Overall employment of archivists, curators, and museum workers is projected to grow 19 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations.
About 4,900 openings for archivists, curators, and museum workers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Much of the projected employment growth in these occupations is due to recovery from the COVID-19 recession that began in 2020. Employment growth will vary by occupation.
Demand for archivists is expected to increase as public and private organizations have more information and records that need to be organized and made accessible. In particular, the growing use of electronic records may create jobs for archivists.
Continued public interest in museums and other cultural centers is expected to increase the demand for curators, museum technicians, and conservators. However, because these are small occupations, over the decade the fast growth is expected to result in only about 2,900 new jobs for curators and about 2,800 new jobs for museum technicians and conservators.
Archives and museums that receive federal funds may be affected by changes to the federal budget, which in turn might impact employment of archivists, curators, museum technicians, and conservators.
The median annual wage for archivists, curators, and museum workers was $50,120 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $30,450, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $96,500.
Median annual wages for archivists, curators, and museum workers in May 2021 were as follows:
- Curators - $60,110
- Archivists - $60,050
- Museum technicians and conservators - $47,630
In May 2021, the median annual wages for archivists, curators, and museum workers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Educational services; state, local, and private - $60,550
- Government - $53,210
- Museums, historical sites, and similar institutions - $48,320
Most archivists, curators, museum technicians, and conservators work full time.
Archivists in government agencies and corporations generally work during regular business hours. Curators in large institutions may travel extensively to evaluate potential additions to the collection, organize exhibits, and conduct research. However, for curators in small institutions, travel may be rare. Museum technicians may need to work evenings and weekends if their institutions are open to the public during those times.