Museum Studies Majors Guide

Table of Contents

What Is Museum Studies?

A major in museum studies prepares you to develop, conserve, and retrieve artifacts, exhibitions and collections. Museums play an important educational and social role in communities. They collect, display and preserve items from a vast array of cultures, time periods, and industries. An Arts & Humanities degree in Museum studies major is generally offered at the master's and doctorate level. Most museum studies graduate students have a liberal arts degree with a focus on the kind of field they want to work in (art, anthropology, science, etc.).

There are four basic types of museums--art, history, science, and nature. These topics show up in various types of institutions: anthropology, art history, natural history, aquariums and zoos, arboreta and botanical gardens, child-oriented, hobby and craft, historical sites, nature centers, planetariums, and science and technology centers. These institutions can be owned and operated by the government or by private organizations. As non-profit institutions, any profits earned from ticket sales or donations go back into supporting the museum's mandate.

In larger museums, a Board of Trustees usually provides the direction and sets the policies and major directives. The Director acts as the chief administrative officer, who delegates to the staff s/he oversees. Museums run on teamwork, so it's important that individuals develop an ability to get along with co-workers and strong communication skills. The competition among museum professionals is greater than ever, which means you must work carefully to plan for your career.

Career Education in Museum Studies

A Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) may be sufficient academic training for the rare positions in smaller museums or less populated communities where competition isn't as strong. Online college courses in a variety of museum-related subjects are available for students who need flexible study options.

The courses you take for a career in museum work depends on both the type of work you want to do and the type of institution you're interested in. There is no standard job description for museum careers or course of study that can open up the entire field for you. Few schools offer bachelor's degrees in museum studies; degrees or minors in related fields, such as art history, history, or anthropology are more common. Internships are generally required and provide enormously beneficial career training while you study.

To work in an art museum, you should take classes in art history. To specialize in teaching in an art museum, consider online college classes in arts education; to conduct classes for school children, you'll need to study early childhood education. To be a curator, include courses in arts administration and management. Many curators are responsible for posting information on the Internet, so you may need to be familiar with digital imaging, scanning technology, and copyright law. To be a director at an art museum, include extra courses in finance, non-profit management, and human resources to fulfill the many roles that job will involve. For careers at this level, you will need a master's degree at minimum.

At the same museum, you may choose to specialize in, say, Native American artifacts, in which case you'd need to take courses in history, anthropology, and even geography. Art history courses will teach you how to understand not only the aesthetic and technical qualities of a piece, but also the cultural, historical, philosophical, scientific, and religious context of the society it was created in and the individuals who created it. Online degree programs in foreign languages, classical studies, religion, and the technical and scientific principles of preserving precious pieces can all be relevant to your career advancement.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Museum Studies?

There are fewer curatorial positions in museums now than there were 20 years ago, but aspiring museum employees enjoy a wider range of job opportunities than they did in the past. The field has changed with the decrease in public funding; the ease of handling many huge tasks such as cataloguing, research, and producing support materials through sophisticated computer programs; and the growing demand to provide access to all sectors of society. At a senior level, you'll be expected to have an understanding of the museum's mandate, non-profit management, legal issues, budgets, grant application processes, and a working knowledge of conservation and preservation.

Job satisfaction among museum professionals is high despite an average starting salary of less than $27,000. The median annual earnings of archivists, curators, and museum technicians in 2002 were over $35,000. Earnings in the field vary considerably by type and size of institution and by specialty.

Museum Curator Jobs

Museum curators oversee permanent collections and new acquisitions. They might specialize in particular media, eras, or locations. They will work on a team to choose what is displayed in an exhibition, and the content of supporting materials such as guidebooks or information plaques. They maintain relationships with the Board of Trustees and staff and facilitate communication between both groups. They are also responsible for grant writing and fundraising activities. Good attributes for a curator include precise, efficient work habits and strong internal and external community-building talent.

Art historians, arts managers, and arts educators can all compete for a museum curator job if they have the right work experience - especially when combined with a master's degree and/or foreign language skills. A PhD may be required by major institutions. Curators are also employed by libraries and private collection exhibitors.

Archivist Careers

Archivists describe, catalogue, analyze, exhibit, and maintain valuable objects and collections for the benefit of researchers and the public. Archivists handle art, transcripts of meetings, photographs, films, video and sound recordings, computer tapes, video and optical disks, coins and stamps, living and preserved plants and animals, and historic buildings and sites that are retained because of their importance and potential value in the future. Archivists work for a variety of organizations, including government agencies, museums, historical societies, corporations, and educational institutions that use or generate records of great potential value to researchers, exhibitors, genealogists, and others who would benefit from having access to original source material.

Records may be saved on any medium, including film, paper, videotape, audiotape, electronic disk, or computer. As technology changes, archivists must stay up-to-date on advances in electronic information storage. Computers are expected to transform many aspects of archival collections as they allow more records to be stored and exhibited electronically.

Conservators & Museum Technicians

Art conservators preserve and restore damaged and faded paintings. Object conservators help prevent and repair deterioration of other artifacts. As a conservator, employers will expect you to have a master's degree in conservation or in a closely related field, together with substantial experience. Competition for these positions is keen, so you should have a background in chemistry, archaeology or studio art, and art history.

Museum technicians usually need a bachelor's degree in an appropriate discipline of the museum's specialty, as well as training in museum studies or previous experience working in museums, particularly in exhibit design. Archive technicians need a degree in library science or history, or relevant work experience. Technician positions often serve as a stepping stone for individuals interested in archival and curatorial work. Except in small museums, a master's degree is needed for advancement.

Arts Education Jobs

Arts educators at a museum design and arrange lectures, classes, workshops, tours, and outreach programs for community and school groups. Previous studies in history or anthropology can enhance your presentation, as can your interpersonal and interpretive skills. You will need to relate to diverse groups of people, so polish your written and oral communication skills for everyone from the wide-eyed preschooler to the well-heeled arts patron.

Certification, Licensure, and Associations

The American Association of Museums (AAM) is a nonprofit organization which strives to support the professional museum field and help it to better serve its communities. It awards credentials to museums and institutions. Rather than building on the credentials of individual professionals, it indirectly benefits them through career development seminars, peer group access, publications and education resources, and recognition as a committed member of the museum committee. A similarly focused but broader organization is the International Council of Museums (ICOM).

The Academy of Certified Archivists offers voluntary certification. The "Certified Archivist" designation is obtained by those with a master's degree and a year of appropriate archival experience who pass a written examination.

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