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Archivists and curators.

ARCHIVISTS AND CURATORS The curiosity that killed the cat fuels careers for archivists and curators. Many people study a previous era for the sake of knowledge alone. Others want to gain more insight into some aspect of today's world. And some hope to use knowledge as a clue to the future. Archivists and curators attempt to satisfy people's curiosity by presenting information in an attractive, yet instructive, manner whatever the subject--the development of armaments, changing fashions, new trends in art, daily life in another period, the steps taken by a President in reaching a decision, or the course of subatomic research.

Nature of the Work

Archivists and curators search for, acquire, catalog, restore, exhibit, maintain, and store items of interest. These items may be almost anything--historical documents, corporate records, works of art, stamps, coins, minerals, maps, movies, medical and scientific instruments, plants, animals, buildings, or battle sites. In general, archivists work with documents and records while curators work with other items. The collection may be for the public at large or of special interest to children, hobbyists, scientists, researchers, corporations, local citizens, history buffs, or an ethnic group.

Archivists, like librarians, deal primarily with written or printed material, but copies of the items they store are either unique or few in number. They determine what portion of the vast amount of information produced by government agencies, corporations, educational institutions, and other organizations should be kept and what discarded. They also determine whether to keep the original document or to transfer it to another medium, such as microfilm, microfiche, or magnetic tape. They may modify existing classification systems to facilitate the retrieval of material.

Archivists may serve as advisors or conduct research for their employers, scholars, scientists, journalists, and others. Managing a collection may require expertise in a specific discipline.

Curators administer museum collectioins and historic sites. They are responsible for maintaining the collection and for the form and nature of exhibits. They also select items to accept as gifts or to add to the collection through purchase or field work. In large museums, curators may work with administrators such as museum directors, budget officers, program directors, assistant curators, conservators, and department heads. In small museums, their responsibilities may include the functions of most, if not all, museum occupations.

An attractive and educational exhibition may result in good attendance, good public relations, and increased revenue for the museum. In preparing exhibits, curators may acquire new items, arrange for loans from other museums, or rely on the museum's own inventory. A registrar, who is responsible for the movement of items--their packing, insurance, and cataloging--in and out of the museum, and a collections manager, who keeps the museum's inventory, may assist the curator. Others who assist the curator in preparing an exhibition include museum technicians, exhibit specialists, and educators.

Curators may supervise conservation technicians, restorers, and armorer technicians who restore the museum's collection as closely as possible to its original condition. Restoration may require substantial historical and archeological research by the curator and research associates, as well as numerous consultations in the art shops, laboratories, and buildings where restoration activities take place.

Curators may train or help establish museum education programs for museum attendats and unpaid volunteers--who lead guided tours to enhance viewers' appreciation of exhibits. Many volunteers are women; increasing numbers are students hoping to acquire valuable experience. Without these volunteers, many large museums would have to restrict their activities and many small museums would probably close.

Working Conditions

Archival work is sedentary and quiet. The work can be painstaking, requiring meticulous attention to detail. Many archivists work alone, and most work in offices with only one or two other people. This is true even for large employers such as governments or universities. There is little with the public, except when working in a library. Sometimes, strong interest in an archival display may require contact with the press and response to public inquiries. Teaching or research duties often result in interpersonal contact through attendance at classes and meetings or travel to collect information.

Curators also usually work in a quiet office. However, working conditions vary depending upon the type and size of museum.

In museum with small items, little physical activity is required. Work in museums with collections of large objects, such as tapestries and animal specimens, may be more physically demanding. Overseeing collections in botanical gardens and other outdoor museums may require substantial walking.

Museams with limited budgets acquire new items only occasionally, but curators in museums with more funds at their disposal may travel extensively to add to the collection. They might visit a private collector, a commercial establishment, or another museum, or even participate in an archeological expedition or botanical exploration. Maintenance and restoration activities also may require travel to studios where paintings are being restored or laboratories where animal specimens are being prepared for display. Curators working as administrators of distant historic sites may also travel. In some cases, they temporarily live at or near the site.


Archivists and curators held an estimated 11,000 jobs in 1984. About 40 percent were in Federal, State, and local government agencies. About 30 percent were in private museums; most of the remainder were in universities, colleges, and libraries.

In the Federal Government, most archivists are employed in the National Archives and Records Administration, while others are employed by the Department of Defense to manage military archives. All State governments have archival or historical records sections employing archivists. A small but growing number of large corporations also employs archivists to manage the growing volume of records required by law or necessary to the firms' operations. Religious and fraternal organizations, professional associations, and research agencies also increasingly employ archivists and curators.

Most museum curators in the Federal Government are employed in the Smithsonian Institution, the military museums of the Department of Defense, and the archeological and other museums managed by the Department of the Interior. Both State and local governments have numerous historical museums, parks, and zoos employing curators.

Over 10 percent of all archivists and 20 percent of all curators work part time, primarily in small archival centers and museums.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Employment as an archivist or curator generally requires graduate training and substantial work experience. Many archivists and curators work as technicians, trainees, or paraprofessionals in archives, museums, or libraries while completing their formal education.

Most archivists have at least one master's degree, and many have a doctorate or second master's degree in library science. Archivists commonly earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in history, economics, or related fields, and take some courses in archival or library science. Since much information is now stored on computer tapes or disks, basic knowledge of computers is increasingly useful. Of the more than 70 institutions of higher learning offering courses on practical training in archival science, about 30 offer the master's degree and over 10 offer the doctorate.

Continuing education is very important to archivists. Workshops sponsored by the National Archives and Records Administration include such subjects as establishing archives; problems of acquisition--for example, appraisal and forgeries; problems of access and security; and administration--for example, budgeting, program planning, and resource allocation. Meetings and conferences sponsored by the Society of American Archivists and other associations enable archivists to keep up with developments in their field, such as the increasing use of computers to store and access information.

Archivists should have good eyesight, since information to be stored may be printed matter, handwritten manuscripts, photographs, or film, and legibility may be poor. The ability to read rapidly to extract pertinent information from large amounts of data is required. Archivists also must be able to organize large amounts of information effectively and to write clear, succinct instructions for its retrieval.

Archival units usually are very small, and promotion opportunities are limited. Advancement generally is through transferring to a larger unit. When the archival activity is ancillary to other activities--for example, a library or museum--archivists may become librarians or manuscript curators.

The minimum requirements for employment as a curator, even in small museums, are a bachelor's degree in museum studies (museology) or a discipline related to the museum's specialty--for example, art, anthropology, or archeology--and experience in museum activities--such as art restoration and exhibit design. For some positions, curators gain permanent employment after completing an internship including full-time museum work supplemented by self-paid courses in museum practices. In large museums, a master's degree in museum studies or a related subject has become the usual educational requirement; employers prefer applicants with a doctorate. For some positions, experience may be substituted for an advanced degree.

About 60 institutions of higher learning offer undergraduate courses in museum studies, with nearly 40 granting a bachelor's degree in the subject; over 90 universities grant the master's degree.

Curatorial positions often require knowledge in a number of fields. One's academic background should include courses in the social sciences--such as history and economics--and in the life sciences--such as botany and zoology. For historic and artistic conservation activities, courses in chemistry, physics, painting, and crafts are desirable. Since curators--particularly those in small museums--may have administrative and managerial responsibilities, courses in administration, budget, collection management, fundraising, and public relations are also recommended.

Curators must be flexible because of the wide variety of their duties. A good aesthetic sense helps in the design and presentation of exhibits. Manual dexterity may be helpful when supervising or collaborating with craft workers in the erection of exhibits or the restoration of various objects. The ability to maintain good personal relations is important in coordinating the efforts of museum personnel. Public relations skills are valuable in increasing museum attendance and in finding financial backing.

Continuing education is also very important for curators. To keep abreast of improvements in museum operating techniques, they attend conferences and meetings sponsored by the Association of American Museums and other associations. They monitor developments in museum activities, such as restoration techniques, by attending workshops sponsored by large museums, such as the Smithsonian Institution.

Curators usually advance by acquiring a position in a larger museum. Earning an advanced degree is very important, as is the publication of articles and reports in learned journals. In very large museums, curators can advance to administrative positions, such as program planner or museum director.

Job Outlook

Employment of archivists and curators is expected to increase more slowly than the average for all occupations through the mid-1990's. Little expansion of governmental archival and museum activities is expected. A reversal of the decline in funding of private museums is not anticipated.

Archivists can improve their job opportunities by including courses in library science in their graduate curriculums. Graduates with doctoral degrees will be offered the most responsible, best paying jobs. Some employment opportunities will arise in related fields such as librarian, records manager, collection manager, and manuscript curator. However, employment in these fields is also expected to grow relatively slowly.

Competition for curatorial positions will intensify because of an increasing oversupply of well-trained applicants. Many candidates may have to work part time, as an intern, or even as a volunteer in an assistant curatorial or research associate position after completing their formal education. For others, substantial work experience in collection management, exhibit design, or restoration will be necessary before permanent curatorial status is acquired.


Earnings of archivists and curators vary considerably depending upon the type and size of the employer. For example, salaries of archivists in the Federal Government are, on the average, much higher than those of archivists employed in religious organizations. Salaries of curators in large, well-funded museums may be several times higher than those in small museums. Natural history museums tend to pay the highest salaries; general history museums, the lowest. Generally, Federal salaries are higher than those in State governments which, in turn, are higher than in local government.

Starting salaries in the Federal Government depend upon the applicant's education and experience. In 1985, inexperienced archivists with a bachelor's degree started at $14,400 while those with experience started at $17,800. Applicants with a master's degree started at $21,800. Curators with a bachelor's degree and experience or with a master's degree started at $21,800. Applicants with a master's degree and experience or with a doctorate started at either $26,400 or $31,600. Archivists and curators employed by the Federal Government averaged about $34,500 a year in 1984.

Related Occupations

Archivists' and curators' interests in preserving and displaying documents and objects are shared by anthropologists, arborists, archeologists, artifacts conservators, botanists, ethnologists, folklorists, genealogists, historians, horticulturists, information specialists, librarians, paintings restorers, records managers, and zoologists.

Sources of Additional Information

Information about careers as an archivist and schools offering courses in archival science is available from Society of American Archivists 600 South Federal Street, Suite 504 Chicago, Illinois 60605.

For general information about careers as a curator and schools offering courses in curatorial science, contact American Association of Museums 1055 Thomas Jefferson Street NW. Washington, D.C. 20007.

For information about curatorial careers in parks, botanical gardens, and museums, contact American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums Oglebay Park Wheeling, West Virginia 26003 American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta P.O. Box 206 Swarthmore, Pennsylvania 19081

For information about conservation and preservation careers, contact American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works 3545 Williamsburg Lane NW. Washington, D.C. 20008 National Trust for Historic Preservation Office of Personnel Administration 1785 Massachusetts Avenue NW. Washington, D.C. 20036.
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Title Annotation:employment forecasts
Author:Gartaganis, Arthur
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 1985
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