As institutions dedicated to preserving and interpreting the primary tangible evidence of humankind’s past, museums have an important job. But in their effort to tell the world’s history, they run a risk of becoming entangled in its myriad interpretations. That’s why it’s good to keep in mind that the museum as a concept may have a long history but its definition is relatively recent.
While there is no archaeological proof that the museum as we know it existed in antiquity, there are records of large collections built up by individuals and groups before the modern era. Examples include votive offerings in temples and treasuries, and the collecting of art and natural curiosities by travelers for display. The modern incarnation of the museum, as an organized institution, emerged from a combination of these and other factors.
The concept of museums as collections with a public mandate began to take shape in the 17th and 18th centuries, with Napoleon I’s conquest of Europe and his confiscation of treasures a major catalyst. As nationalistic fervor grew in these centuries, it became more practical to create centralized organizational structures that would collect, preserve, and communicate the cultural heritage of a nation.
As the century progressed, a few new types of museums appeared, including buildings that re-created whole towns and neighborhoods (such as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia) and those designed specifically for children. And in the 1900s, a museum as a place of education was further emphasized by developing museums that specialized in specific fields like science, history, and the arts.
These changes have brought a renewed emphasis on museum curatorships, which are often interdisciplinary and require the ability to bridge different fields of study. For instance, a curator of modern art is likely to have experience with architecture and the visual arts as well as classical studies and archeology.
A museum curator’s responsibilities are varied and can include everything from collections management to educational outreach. Depending on the size of the museum and the scope of its collection, the curator can also be responsible for exhibitions and public programming, as well as fundraising and grant writing.
Museum curators need to be aware of the current political climate and the potential impact on museum-goers. They should be prepared to adapt their exhibits and programs as needed, and to consider the needs of audiences of all ages, especially young people.
If you’re interested in becoming a museum curator, consider earning a bachelor’s degree in a field of art or history. An internship with a museum during your undergraduate years can provide hands-on experience and help you network with other professionals in the field. You can also join a museology organization to stay informed about the latest trends and developments in the industry. You can also pursue a graduate degree in museology to further refine your skills and gain the knowledge you need to become an effective museum curator. These degrees can be earned online or at a traditional university, such as the University of Washington.