The Catholic University of America

Museum Careers

The 'Mourning Athena' relief, Acropolis Museum  
The 'Mourning Athena' relief, Acropolis Museum, Athens, 5th century BC

What a museum curator does

Curators serve in a variety of practical and intellectual capacities: their jobs call for them to function at once as preservationists, archivists, researchers, scholars, and teachers. They are involved in the acquisition, conservation, and maintenance of artifacts and works of art; the compilation of record-keeping systems for museum collections; the direct study of objects; the publication of scholarly articles and museum catalogues; the arrangement of objects for display; and the presentation of exhibitions to engage visitors and disseminate knowledge.

Our discussion here assumes that you are interested in a position at a mid- to larger-sized university or public museum, working in an area that calls for expertise in the Greco-Roman world. There are, of course, many other types of museum careers, but the path described here is the most likely one for a trained classicist.

Dr. Sabine Albersmeier, formerly Associate Curator of Ancient Art at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, has provided the following information to assist you in your planning (it was edited slightly for the website by Dr. Sarah Ferrario).

The educational path

Going to graduate school

Because the career of a museum curator is highly appealing to many students, the field is also highly competitive. Particularly for museum work on the classical world, you will generally be expected to attain the PhD. Future curators often pursue their doctorates in classical art or archaeology, but a PhD in "straight classics" can also serve as good preparation for museum work, provided that you also engage in some of the related work activities discussed below.

Language work

As for careers in archaeology, scholar-level skills in both Latin and ancient Greek are required for museum curators who plan to attain the higher positions in the profession. A sound command of modern languages (especially French, German, and Italian) will likely be needed--not only for your research but also for acquisitions work and interactions with colleagues overseas. You should therefore pursue modern-language skill levels beyond the minimum reading requirements of graduate school, in order to ensure that you will be able to operate comfortably and independently.

What about museology programs and museum studies certificates?

If you want maximum flexibility in your search for a position, and if you are interested in mid- and larger-sized institutions, these types of programs probably cannot serve you as blanket substitutes for earning a traditional PhD in an academic area. However, you might consider adding a museum certificate as part of a PhD program, or earning a joint master's degree in museum studies and an academic field before moving on to the doctorate. This kind of broad, diverse background can be very useful.

Recommendations for undergraduate preparations

Strong preparation for an undergraduate student interested in a career as a museum curator should ideally include at least three years of one ancient language and two years of the other, as well as introductory or reading-comprehension study of a modern language (the CUA Department of Modern Languages offers reading-comprehension courses during the summers). You should also elect courses that introduce you to the acqusition, study, and interpretation of ancient objects, in such subject areas as archaeology and art.

The BA in Classics, because of its linguistic focus, provides the best CUA preparation for a career in archaeology. The BA in Classical Humanities or the BA in Classical Civilization may also suffice under some circumstances, but only provided that you elect as many language courses as possible and consult throughout with the undergraduate adviser to tailor your choices to your goals (you may, for example, wish to complete a minor in a cognate field to further strengthen your program). The department also offers summer intensive courses in both Latin and Greek. These courses can be ideal ways to jump-start or refresh your preparation in the ancient languages, particularly if your schedule during the full academic year has not had room for them.

Internships

Internships help you hone skills and build professional contacts, both of which are essential in preparing you to enter a very competitive job market. Ideally, you should pursue several internships in the course of your education, at museums of varying size and emphasis and in different departments or areas, in order to "try out" as many aspects of the profession as possible.

You can (and should) begin interning as an undergraduate, during the summers and even during the academic year. Many museums post opportunities for interns on their websites. Although you will likely not be paid, the potential to accumulate experience is invaluable. Once you become a graduate student, you can apply for paid internships and fellowships; some museum fellowships may even provide support for you to research and write your doctoral dissertation.

At times when it is not logistically or financially feasible for you to intern, you can continue to build your experience by volunteering as a docent or in a museum's education department. If you are able to train to give tours, this will also help you refine your public speaking and presentation skills, which are not only crucial to the museum profession but also useful in academic and professional interviews.

What about excavating?

Future museum curators should seek significant experience in working with ancient objects. Although, as Dr. Albersmeier notes, this does not necessarily have to take place in the context of an archaeological excavation, excavation experience can be a plus when your total academic background is taken into account.

Another useful way in which you might spend your summers is on the intensive site-study programs offered the American Academy in Rome and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.