Curator 2.0- The New Duties of an Evolving Job

The occupation of curator was recently ranked one of The 50 Best Careers of 2011 by U.S. News & World Report. While we may find this true over the course of the next year, one thing becomes more and more certain and we continually embrace the information age: the role of the museum curator is changing.

Traditional curators are extremely knowledgeable about art/artifacts. New curators may have to be extremely knowledgeable about people.

Curators decide what to show the public and manage how visitors will experience art and artifacts.  They are the gatekeepers who decide which artworks will be presented… but engaging visitors no longer stops with choosing which painting to hang on the wall and telling docents and interpreters to help build the bridge between academia and public understanding.  Curators will need to become increasingly involved in the bridge-building process.

We are in the midst of an incredible time of information-share, user-generated content, and social technology. Everyone’s a curator.

Museums will need people who can help visitors curate for themselves in creative ways.

According to the U.S. News & World Report article,  “The Labor Department projects the number of curators will rise by 23 percent over the next several years, well above the average rate for all careers. By 2018, there should be about 2,700 new positions added.” I argue that a good portion of these positions added will not be asked to serve the role of traditional curators.

The upcoming need for more curators is great news for museum professionals- especially since the employees that museums need to curate content to optimize visitor engagement may not be the traditional PhD’d curators of the industry in the past. We may find that new curators are specialists in people and communication. We’re already seeing these changes take place in the museum field. For example, Allison Agsten is the Curator of Public Engagement at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. She was hired in order to help make the museum more interactive. She’s not a traditional curator; her background is in communications. But in many ways, she is the traditional curator- evolved. Museum marketers, object conservators, museum interpreters, and program producers may be filling some (perhaps most?) of those 2,700 curator job openings as museums heed the call of community engagement and social technology opportunities.

Specialists and academics are critical for museums and similar institutions to have on staff and their importance will not diminish. However, museums of the future may find that they need people to actively build and maintain the bridge between the academic realm and the sphere of public understanding. They will need people to not only choose works of art for display, but to chose them with a new focus on conversation and audience engagement.

Thanks to emerging tools, the walls between highly academic museums and the communities these institutions serve is more easily scaled , and museums will likely continue to become more interactive. The institution that keeps up the wall may one day wake up to find itself isolated. They’ll need a curator to help lift people up… which, we are learning, will require touching them.

The curators of the future may not look like the curators of the past.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Trends 4 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

4 Responses to Curator 2.0- The New Duties of an Evolving Job

  1. quincyink

    I am late on this, but I can’t let it go without thanking you for posting it! My transition to public history from marketing and communications earned me funny looks from colleagues in both fields. Engaging and educating an audience is at the heart of both, so with the right training and communication, it’s not a far leap. Maybe I should just attach this to my resume where it veers from marketing to museum educator…?

  2. Love of Art

    While museums are employing people to fill new needs in audience engagement, you are right to say that academic curators with PhDs and specialized knowledge will never be supplanted. Art museums are about the preservation of art and the advancement of knowledge, after all. The last generation of curators or professors without PhDs is now retiring. Job advertisements for curators with responsibility over collections list the PhD as a definite requirement.

  3. James Hare

    This article misses some important developments occurring inside the museum and art gallery field. The position of curators in many organizations especially smaller what could be termed “feeder” galleries and museums is diminishing if not being eliminated as part of a regular staffing component. Here in Ottawa, many institutions do not have curators as permanent staff. Rather they have shifted to having museum educators or education and communications professionals. Curators instead have become contractors who are hired to complete defined program development goals. Once these goals are met the curator’s contract is over.

    While big institutions will continue to have permanent curators on staff, partly due to historical and institutional inertia, the change with smaller institutions has already happened or is happening. Add in the increasing number of people entering the curator profession with a reduced demand for people with pure curating skills will most likely lead to increasing use of contract positions rather then permanent staff.

    • colleendilen

      Thanks for the comment, James. I think you are spot on. Indeed, the role of a curator is evolving (permanent to contractor, in the example you mention) and has even evolved since I wrote this article! I expect that it will keep evolving and changing as museums and galleries determine the value of having an on-site curatorial resource… and the value of this may change, as you mention. I think this is a hard “lesson” for those who may have thought that this role was “secure” or unchanging!

      “Add in the increasing number of people entering the curator profession with a reduced demand for people with pure curating skills will most likely lead to increasing use of contract positions rather then permanent staff.” Very good point!


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