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Museums Overview

  There are over 17,500 museums in the United States and there almost as many museum career options.1 Museum professionals work for a variety of institutions such as museums, governments, zoos, colleges and universities, and corporations to preserve important objects, documents, and artifacts. Museum professionals encompass a number of separate careers, including archival, curatorial, administration and management, conservation, museum education, and technological work. The amount of specialization required usually depends on the size and budget of the museum. Employees at small local museums may be required to perform a number of functions, while employees at larger institutions are allowed greater specialization. Museums encompass a variety of specific disciplines including:

  • Art Education
  • Science Education or Science- Technology Centers
  • Children's Museums
  • History Museums
  • Living History, Farms and Agriculture Museums
  • Zoos and Aquaria
  • College and University Museums
  • Small Museums

  Despite this variety of careers, the AAM Code of Ethics for Museums states that the common factor between these professions is their “unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting the things of this world.”

Who They Serve:

  Over 865 million visitors come to America’s museums per year, with approximately 2.3 million visits per day. It is the responsibility of museum professionals to serve this public, whether behind the scenes through archival, conservation, or administration work, or upfront through such things as museum education careers.

  Museum professionals serve many different institutions such as both governmental and private museums of anthropology, art history and natural history, aquariums, arboreta, art centers, botanical gardens, children’s museums, historic sites, nature centers, planetariums, science and technology centers, and zoos.

What They Do:

  Museum professionals work in a variety of disciplines in order to best collect, preserve, interpret, and educate about a particular collection. Below are more detailed descriptions of the work required in some of the most prominent museum careers.

Museums Specialties

  • Museum Director - According to the AAMD Salary Survey, a museum director is the person who “provides conceptual leadership through specialized knowledge of the discipline of the museum; responsible for policy making and funding, planning, organizing, staffing and directing activities through the staff and may be responsible for financial management.” The director has the ultimate jurisdiction over the holdings of the museum, including jurisdiction over acquisition, exhibition, preservation, study, and interpretation. Museum directors usually have strong curatorial backgrounds before they take on administrative responsibilities. Most have a strong educational background in the field of the museum, and may hold a doctorate in that field.
  • Curator - Curators are responsible for the care and interpretation of artifacts or specimens within their segment of the museum’s collection. In larger museums, each curator usually has a specialty within the overall collection. Curators make recommendations for acquisitions, as well as interpreting the collection through published works or public presentations for scholarly or public audiences and exhibitions. Curators are in charge of exhibit development and execution. Curators are also responsible for making contacts with serious collectors and scholars, who may prove to be future donators. Curators are on occasion responsible for tours. Most curators have a PhD in a discipline relevant to the museum’s collection. Positions such as assistant curator, writer, or research assistant are excellent entry-level opportunities to gain curatorial experience.
  • Archivist - Archivists collect, organize, and maintain control over a museum’s collection. Archivists maintain records according to accepted standards and practices to ensure long-term preservation and easy retrieval of documents. They often specialize in an area of history so as to be more equipped in determining which records qualify for retention. Computers are being increasingly used to generate and maintain archival records, and appropriate computer skills are required. Archivists usually have a Bachelor degree in history or a related subject. Positions such as the archive technician serve as an entry-level position and a way to gain archival experience. Archive Technicians have some knowledge of the subject matter of the collection and usually some experience or courses in archival work.
  • Museum Technician - Museum technicians work directly with curators and collection managers and it is considered a “hands on the collection” position. Museum technicians perform a variety of duties such as researching artifacts, assisting visiting scholars, packing and storing artifacts, assisting with registration activities, recordkeeping, and answering public inquiries. Job activities correspond to the nature of the collection. Museum Technician is considered an entry-level position. A degree is not always required, but most technicians have an undergraduate degree in the field of the museum.
  • Museum Educator - A museum educator is responsible for designing programs targeted to a variety of visitors. This may include creating an assortment of tours, developing interactive education programs, as well as planning special events. Recently many museum education departments have expanded into school programs, and the museum educator is responsible for connecting the museum’s message with a teacher’s curriculum. Museum educators are often responsible for training and scheduling docents and volunteers. Museum educators usually have a background in education and history.
  • Collections Manager - The collections manager is responsible for “the overall policies, acquisition plans, recordkeeping, care, storage, and accessibility for a museum’s collection.” In some museums, the collections manager is responsible for digitizing the collections, as well as ensuring the overall standardization of cataloguing and documentation. Collections Managers have degrees in a field related to their collections.
  • Registrar - “The Registrar is responsible not only for making sure that the collection is fully documented and accounted for, but also for making the museum’s cultural resources available to researchers. In smaller museums the position of registrar is often absorbed into the role of curator. Duties may include dealing with research requests, cataloguing objects, or creating finding aids. In many ways the duties and responsibilities of a registrar and an archivist overlap. Training for this position requires experience with information technology, cataloguing schemes, and terminology standardization. An academic background in history, in addition to the technical skills needed for the position, will equip the registrar with the research abilities needed to properly identify and classify collection objects.”
  • Conservator - Conservators are responsible for the state of a museum’s artifacts. They evaluate the condition of the objects, and then treat or repair them to prevent deterioration. This field is highly linked to technology and involves state of the art imaging, chemical analysis techniques and other analytical tools in order to correctly assess the state of deterioration and determine the best conservation method. A background in chemistry is highly desirable along with artistic skills in a particular medium. “Conservators usually have a specialty such as textiles, paintings, photos, wood, books, paper, etc.” Most conservators have an advanced degree in conservation.

Museums Breaking In

What Employers Want:

  Employers generally prefer candidates with backgrounds in history, anthropology, computers, and communications. Courses focused on teamwork, grant writing, fund raising, diversity and specific museum studies courses are very beneficial. Employers value students with a strong background in research. Internships are the most common way to begin a career in the museums. Entry-level employees entering into specialized museum fields are expected to have additional knowledge bases such as math and statistics for research based positions, or marketing techniques for development and membership positions. One-quarter of museum professionals indicated that entry-level employees should place a premium on continued learning, value accuracy in their work, and listen well to those around them.

  Students interested in museum careers should have strong writing, research, organizational, and interpersonal skills. Knowledge of financial management, grant writing and fundraising, museum governance and organization, as well as the use of technology are all essential skills for a career in museums. Additionally, museum professionals see people skills as one of the most important aspects for persons wanting to get ahead in museums.

What They Hire Undergraduates to Do:

  Museum professionals look for undergraduates with a well-rounded, liberal education for their entry-level employees; whether the student has obtained this education at the B.A or M.A level is not particularly important. Most importantly, museum professionals look for someone who can do the job they are hired to do, meaning the applicant must have the appropriate skills and knowledge to become a productive member of their team. Museum professionals want their entry-level employees to be people oriented, good with objects, have a passion for their work, and who are interested in advancing their careers and the museum. Professionalism is a must. (http://www.compt-aam.org/images/Reynolds_Survey.doc) Undergraduates are hired for a number of entry-level positions, including assistant curators, assistant archivists, museum technicians, and administrative assistants.

Museums Alumni

Additional Alumni Profiles

    Networking with alumni and other professionals who work in these fields can help you learn very specific information about a career field. Use Johns Hopkins Connect to contact alumni to ask for their advice. You may also find professional contacts through professional associations, faculty, friends and family.

    If you would like to talk about how your search is going, we invite you to make an appointment with a Career Counselor by calling 410-516-8056.

    LinkedIn.com - a professional networking site where you can identify Hopkins alumni. Join the LinkedIn Johns Hopkins University Alumni Group to add over 4000+ alumni to your network.

Museums Resources



Industry/ Professional Organizations:

Industry Websites:


  Networking with professionals who work in this field can help you learn very specific information about a career field. Professional contacts through professional associations, faculty, friends and family can be very helpful. You may also explore career opportunities by talking with employers at career fairs, and company presentations.

  Internships - research positions and summer employment are highly effective ways for you to try out a field, gain experience and skills and make professional contacts.

Museums Related

  If you would like to talk about how your search is going, we invite you to make an appointment with a Career Counselor by calling 410-516-8056.