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A Life at the Museum: Exploring Types of Museum Careers

In the 2006 film Night at the Museum, Ben Stiller plays a man hired to be the night watchman at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. What he assumes will be a boring shift of guarding fossils turns into an adventure when the entire museum comes to life after dark. Instead of passing the hours watching television and making sure nobody breaks into the museum, he finds himself running from dinosaur skeletons and having conversations with Theodore Roosevelt.

A museum curator meets with students.
While actual museum careers do not involve ancient Egyptian magic or wild nighttime adventures, the reality of working in a museum is often just as exciting. All types of museum careers mean working in stimulating, enriching environments where you can turn your passion for art, history, music, and culture into a meaningful career.

Individuals interested in pursuing museum careers must start by developing the knowledge they’ll need to be successful. Completing an online degree, such as an online bachelor’s degree in history, can provide graduates with the tools and skills they will need to pursue jobs in this field.

Life in a museum

Data from the Institute of Museum and Library Services suggests more than 35,000 museums operate in the U.S. This includes many different types of institutions: history museums, planetariums, botanical gardens, zoos, aquariums, science museums, and more. The common thread that ties them together is education. All museums seek to educate the public about a specific area of knowledge, whether that is the plight of endangered animals at a zoo or the way light travels through the universe at a planetarium.

Museums have become more than just educational buildings. They are major tourist draws, contributing more than $50 billion to the U.S. economy each year, according to the American Alliance of Museums. Museums are among the most famous landmarks in the U.S. and abroad. Think of the sprawling complex of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the iconic design of the Louvre in Paris, or the architecture of the Guggenheim in New York City. They are institutions in the truest sense of the word, drawing millions of visitors each year, with substantial financial backing to run outreach programs, acquire new pieces, and expand their influence.

Museums do not have to be massive to draw visitors and have an impact, however. A local museum showcasing small town Maine’s history in the lobster trade and an automotive museum in Philadelphia exploring the history of car production, for example, are also relevant, exciting, and educational. Museums of all sizes require employees who are passionate about a specific subject area and want to impart their knowledge to others.

Types of museum careers

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)  worked in various capacities at the nation’s museums. Although numerous types of museum careers exist, the five most popular positions are curator, archivist, tour guide, outreach director, and volunteer.

Curator

Museum curators are responsible for maintaining part or all of a museum’s collection. They can sell or acquire new pieces, decide what to store and what to display, and set the museum’s tone by selecting different exhibition designs and themes. Curators must have deep knowledge in their area and may also help with outreach and public relations.

Archivist

Archivists help preserve and maintain documents, files, and other artifacts. They may use different techniques, such as restoration, or preserve pieces in specialized storage vaults or humidified rooms. Archivists often handle sensitive documents or artwork, helping to determine if they are ready for display as well as their condition. Archivists manage archives using spreadsheets and other organizational tools.

Tour Guide

Tour guides are often the most direct expression of a museum’s main goal: to educate. They show visitors around museums; answer questions; and provide specific knowledge about objects, historical periods, and exhibitions. Tour guides must have great people skills and the ability to retain a lot of information, offering it up as visitors ask questions.

Outreach Director

Outreach directors are the connection between museums and the public. These professionals often play a large role in attracting funding and general support for a museum. Outreach directors can arrange for school tours or send museum representatives to the schools themselves. They may also meet with potential donors to sell them on the merits of their institution or plan fundraising events.

Volunteer

Volunteers fill many different roles at museums. They can serve as tour guides and docents, work in the visitors centers as greeters, help with maintenance, or act as informational hosts for exhibitions. Many museums rely on volunteer workers, who often enjoy perks such as complimentary parking and free visits to special exhibitions around town.

Museum career salaries and job growth

The BLS notes that as of May 2019 the median annual salary for museum archivists, curators, and other types of museum workers was $49,850. Earners in the bottom 10th percentile made $28,330 per year, while those in the top 10th percentile made more than $87,760.

The BLS also projects employment to grow by 9% for archivists and by 10% for museum curators between 2018 and 2028. The growth projections for these positions are faster than the average for all occupations.

Steps to starting a career in a museum

Individuals researching how to pursue museum careers should note that most types of museum careers require a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a related field. The following sections discuss the most common steps toward pursuing careers in this field.

Earn a bachelor’s degree

Completing a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in History, will equip graduates with the fundamental skills they will need to apply for various entry-level positions. Bachelor’s degree programs also provide graduates with the educational groundwork to pursue an advanced degree.

Gain real-world experience

To gain real-world experience, undergraduate students can apply for part-time or volunteer work at local museums. Internship opportunities may also be available. Individuals who gain work experience during their education are likely to enjoy enhanced job opportunities after they graduate.

Pursue an advanced degree

The BLS notes that most archivists and curators typically need a master’s degree in a related field, such as art, history, museum studies, or archaeology. Graduate programs can often be completed in two to four years.

Educate others with a degree from Maryville University

Working in a museum, large or small, allows you to use your passion to educate and inspire others. Whether you are interested in collaborating with a team on outreach or working independently in preservation, the right education can prepare you for a career in a museum. Explore how Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in History can help you step into one of these exciting roles.

Recommended Reading

Career Paths for Graduates with a History Degree

Meet Sandra Harris: University Library Director

Teachable Moments: What’s in Store for the Future Educators of America?

Sources

American Alliance of Museums, “Museum Facts & Data”

American Alliance of Museums, “10 Career Tips from the First Woman to Lead the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum”

Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Types of Museums”

Metropolitan Museum of Art, “What Is It Like to Work in a Museum Like the Met?”

The Muse, “What It’s Like Working at a Major Art Museum”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Archivists, Curators, and Museum Workers”