A fuzzy picture: U.S. jobs projections for curators leave museum directors scratching their heads
February 21, 2010 10:00 AM
National Civil War Museum
Curator Brett Kelley stands beside the Moment of Mercy statue in front of The National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg.
By Mary Thomas Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Curators, archivists and museum technicians are among the professions projected to show "much faster than average employment growth" over the next eight years, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
But before you start applying to graduate schools with visions of devoting your life to the study and care of Rembrandts or Warhols, read on. There's good news and bad, related to our rapidly changing technological and economic states.
The projections for 2008-18 appear in the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, released at the end of 2009. Its job outlook for the three occupations calls for a 20 percent increase over 10 years, "which is must faster than the average for all occupations."
Broken down, museum technicians and conservators are supposed to increase 26 percent, curators 23 percent and archivists 7 percent. The projections are based, in part, upon an expectation that public interest in art, history and technology will continue; that museum attendance will remain good; and that many museums are financially healthy and anticipate building and renovation projects as money becomes available.
But the consensus among museum professionals contacted recently was that, while all would welcome such a trend, the economic downturn makes hiring prospects unlikely in the foreseeable future.
"We're very thinly staffed, as most museums are," said Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky. "Everyone works incredibly hard, and I would love to get them more help."
But actually adding curatorial staff in tight budget times is another matter, she said.
Carnegie Museum of Natural History director Samuel Taylor's response to the projections was similar:
"Great -- when do they show up?"
Dr. Taylor focused on finding means to hire curators during his first six months at the museum's helm, but that wasn't because his museum was booming.
"Our greatest long-term need is to rebuild our curatorial staff, which is down by one-third from levels it has historically been at," he said.
Before dismissing the Labor Department report out of hand, consider what the country has been experiencing economically.
Andrew Masich, president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center, pointed out that the 2008-18 projection was probably based on research done in 2007-08.
"If you asked me at that time, I might have said 'yes.' I might even have said 20 percent growth. If you ask me in 2010, I'd say probably not.
"Libraries and museums are lucky to hold their own on the hiring front, and there might even be downsizing and mergers," he said.
Technological advances might even require fewer people, not more.
"Fifteen to 20 years ago, to organize an art or history exhibition, a curator had to travel, physically go through archives," Mr. Masich said. "Today, much of the work is done from a computer using word-searchable documents. One curator can probably do the work of two a generation ago."
'We don't have a crystal ball'
Gary Steinberg, a spokesman for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, confirmed that the data for the report would have been gathered in 2007-08. Begun at the end of World War II to help returning GIs, the outlooks are released every other year. At the end of each occupational projection, work begins on the next.
Mr. Steinberg said that data gathering is a complicated process that varies by occupation and includes speaking to professionals in the field as well as consulting various statistical surveys. It's up to the economist who develops the projection to determine whether opinions and data match.
"We don't have a crystal ball," he said.
Another factor that may cloud such a projection is how broadly an occupation is defined.
Andy Warhol Museum director Thomas Sokolowski pointed out that a curator has traditionally been expected to exhibit "critical acumen and intellectual acumen." But that is not everyone's definition: "[Someone says] so and so is curating a dinner party. They bought the napkins. That seems nothing more than interior decoration."
He also finds the number of bad exhibitions being produced to be evidence of the title's dilution.
Among the traditional preparations for a curatorial career, Mr. Sokolowski said, were undergraduate and graduate study, knowledge of four or five languages to read source documents, and mini-conservation courses.
The Labor Department's definition of "curator" ranges broadly, acknowledging the variances in such things as institution size, audience served and area of specialty.
"Curators," the report reads, "administer museums, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, nature centers and historic sites. The museum director often is a curator. Curators direct the acquisition, storage and exhibition of collections, including negotiating and authorizing the purchase, sale, exchange or loan of collections.
"They are also responsible for authenticating, evaluating and categorizing the specimens in a collection." Curators may also participate in education, producing publications, fundraising and other tasks.
Presumably few will devolve to the pathos achieved by curator Brett Kelley of the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg. He spent his vacation this snow-socked month outdoors, "living the life of a Civil War soldier on the picket line." Presented as "an educational initiative and fundraiser," it certainly doesn't fit the usual definition of a curator's duties.
Hope for future growth
American Association of Museums president Ford Bell said that he was "quite surprised" by the prediction of a boom in curators. He cited recent layoffs at the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art and Getty Museum as evidence of the difficulties being faced by all institutions.
At the same time, Dr. Bell said, museum programming is viewed as important by the public, museums remain popular, and museum attendance is up.
"Museums in this country attract almost a billion visitors a year now. I'd like to think over the next decade that there will be growth predicated on the economy bouncing back."
So there is hope, if not cause for jubilation.
The best news applies to archivists. Though they had the smallest projected growth of the three occupations, they are "expected to increase as public and private organizations require organization of and access to increasing volumes of records and information," the Labor Department report said.
And that seems to be playing out. American Library Association president Loriene Roy said as information continues to increase, the role of archivist is changing. People are needed who can find information, organize it, think of user needs, preserve documents and make them more accessible.
"We tend to think of the library, museum, archive as a site," she said. Future positions will serve "the fourth museum, in virtual space."
Dr. Roy is also a professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin, the top school in the country educating archivists. She said that due to legislative changes, archivists are becoming both more important and more necessary.
"There is certainly increased demand for archivists ... though it is chiefly digital archivists that everyone wants," agreed her colleague Patricia Galloway, associate professor at Texas.
She said one reason is "a new law that requires the preservation and management forever of research data acquired with federal money."
Dr. Galloway said she advises students interested in museum work to "investigate current usage of the term 'curator,' which in the museum field is beginning to have overtones of elitist connoisseurship." In the field of scientific data, people are beginning to use the term "data curation,' " she said.
The bottom line is similar to the advice that has dominated career counseling for decades: Develop your IT skills and become Web conversant, and you'll be able to find employment. And if you have specialty knowledge as well, you may be able to plug into the subject area of your dreams.