Recommended if… you have an aptitude for visual representations of historical events and concepts, multimedia, public education, and historical research. Full-time positions are possible; part-time positions sometimes require freelancing.
Requirements… Curators typically work on exhibitions related to their field of specialization, for example art history, history of science and technology, women’s history, etc. A graduate degree in history will be most beneficial as you will have developed the analytical and research skills that are essential in curating a final project. Additional coursework or experience in curating, creating exhibitions, and public education methodologies are also valuable. This can be part of a job description working in a museum, archive, library or other institutions that incorporate exhibitions as part of their physical space. Also see Libraries, Archives, Museums & Historical Societies.
Historical exhibitions are commonplace in many educational, public and private institutions. Exhibition curating entails authoring an exhibition in a physical and/or virtual space (website). The work is done in collaboration with other curators, senior administrators, designers, consultants, event planners, and conservators. Major tasks include selecting objects for display and creating accompanying visuals and text. For the exhibition curator, exhibitions carry the same weight as a published book or article. In fact, publications – a catalogue and/or website – usually accompany exhibitions.
Exhibitions can be very temporary for specific short-term events; they can be put on for weeks or months; some may run permanently. Some exhibits travel to different locations. Historians are employed by institutions to curate exhibits. Occasionally, historians working at a university or independently may have a research project appropriate for an institution for which they will seek funding or sponsorship.
Exhibitions vary in content, but they are increasingly taking advantage of multimedia. They involve creating exploratory environments that may include any of the following:
- Material artefacts
- Interpretative, explanatory, and descriptive text forms
- Audio-visual displays involving archival or original materials
- Immersive environments that recreate the historical place or events, and
- Publications and online media.
Exhibitions may be created for broad, general audiences or specifically targeted groups of people such as school children. Their major purpose is to educate, but they often also seek to entertain.
Questions of Historical Depth and Subjectivity
Curators are likely to find themselves influenced, and sometimes limited, by the mandate of the body that is funding or presenting their exhibits. Exhibitions are, almost always, political. They can become the focus of internal politics within an institution, and external politics in the community or even the country. They make implicit, and sometimes explicit, political arguments to the public, which can generate intense dialogue and sometimes controversy. The politics of an exhibition require clear thinking and diplomatic skills. The opportunity to engage in issues of local or national importance and interest is also one of the reasons why the job of curator can be so interesting.
Exhibitions are also shaped by the need to address a specific audience or, alternatively, a broad audience of varying ages and socio-economic backgrounds. There is also the issue of space and time. Exhibition caption and label writing have strict word limits. The curator (sometimes in collaboration with a script-writer) has to keep things very short: 25 words, 50 words, 100 words, and maybe for a very big introductory statement, 250 to 500 words. Every word is precious; emphasis is usually on showing more than telling. The entire exhibition, object and graphic selection, script-writing, display and graphic design: all has to been done according to deadline. On the other hand, curators may also have the opportunity to create supplementary materials, including publications or online resources, that go into much greater depth than what is possible in a physical exhibit.
Becoming a Curator
Some people enter the field by proposing and then creating small exhibitions to be shown in public spaces in their library or university, or by volunteering in a museum or library. Prospective exhibition curators may pursue additional training by taking a two-year museum studies program or a program in public history. (Again, see Libraries, Archives, Museums & Historical Societies). Developing a strong portfolio, even if it is conceptual and demonstrates what you can do, is essential to gaining curator positions. Teaching and research experience are a great asset as well, as well as skills in multimedia.
Some starting points
Have a look at the starting points listed under Libraries, Archives, Museums & Historical Societies. There are many suggestions under Museums and Historical Societies at the bottom of the description that will benefit those who are interested in curating exhibitions.
Have a look at the exhibitions that have been put on at a variety of museums, public libraries, online and so forth to get diverse insights into the content of exhibitions. See current exhibitions at public institutions where you live on a regular basis, and consider speaking with those who organized these exhibitions to learn more about how they were put together.
Do you have further insights on curating exhibitions as a career, or additional information that we can add here? If so, please contact us so we can refine this resource.