How to Become a Curator or Archivist: Tips from Two Experts
For those who love history, objects and ephemera, careers in archiving and curating are highly attractive. If you’re wondering how to become an archivist or curator, Matt Keagle and Miranda Peters are the perfect advisors.
Keagle and Peters, curator and director of collections, respectively, of Fort Ticonderoga, have navigated the long and circuitous path necessary to fill these roles at one of North America’s most important and prestigious 18th-century historic sites. We asked their advice on how best to pursue a career as a curator or archivist.
What is a curator? What is an archivist?
First off, what is a curator or an archivist? Are they the same thing? The answer is yes . . . and no.
Depending on the institution, they may be one and the same, says Keagle. “My role as curator at Fort Ticonderoga is to develop the collection both intellectually and physically through learning about it and researching it. We then make what we know about the collection available through exhibitions, speaking at conferences, engagement with academic peers, and continuing to expand the collection through acquisitions.”
An archivist, on the other hand, is a collection manager or registrar who focuses on documentation, preservation and access.
“That means knowing what we have in the collection,” says Peters. “Why do we have it? Legally, why do we have it? Is it on loan? Where is it located? That means very specifically where it’s located. What condition is it in? An archivist preserves objects. This means making sure the way something exists today, like a rare book, is stored in a way that it will have the best chance of looking that same way in 100 years.”
Peters adds, “We say we’re in the ‘forever business,’ meaning we need to take steps and think them through not just this year or next year, but 50 or 100 years down the line. What can we do so these pieces will still be part of a collection? We also need to make certain objects in the archive will be acceptable and accessible to the staff here and online, as well as to a broader audience.”
How to become an archivist
For Peters, building experience through many related museum positions led to her current role. For Keagle, a passion for history evolved into a love of studying material culture.
“I do not have an archivist degree,” says Peters. As it turns out, getting a degree in archival science or archival studies is not a prerequisite to working in the field. For Peters, her path to museum work began with an undergraduate degree in history at the University of North Carolina Asheville. There, she became fascinated with historical objects. Ultimately, this led her to a master’s degree in decorative arts, design history and material culture from the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.
“I am a firm believer in making sure you balance out your studies and your school life with experience,” she says. “Especially now. Getting a job in an archive or a museum that has an archive is incredibly competitive. I’m not saying that to dissuade anyone. It is possible to get a position as an archivist, but make sure as an undergrad you secure an internship.” Peters adds just getting your foot in the door via a job in a museum gift shop can be instrumental in making connections that could lead to a more formal role within the museum itself.
How to become a curator
For people passionate about a history-based career, Keagle is adamant that you “Let your path take you to a place that’s meaningful to you.” After earning a degree from Cornell, Keagle wanted to work in open-air museums; more specifically, in living history interpretation. He’d had enough of higher education and said, “I’m never going to grad school. I want to work.”
Four years after working at historic sites in the Southeast, Keagle was ready to move forward. “I decided, I do want to go back to grad school because I like this enough and I’m not fully equipped with the skills that I think I need to have,” he says.
Keagle enrolled in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware. Part of what helped him enter the program was developing a resume jam-packed with work experience. Peters and Keagle encourage anyone who is considering a history-related career build up as much experience on their resume as they can.
But an undergraduate “curator degree” or a master’s degree in the subject doesn’t necessarily mean you’re qualified to be a curator. While Keagle says it varies from institution to institution, more and more museums are requiring a Ph.D. to become a curator.
Before completing his doctorate, Keagle considered teaching. While asking supervisors for letters of recommendation, however, he heard about an opening at Fort Ticonderoga. Word of mouth and knowing the right people ultimately landed him a job, which he’s managed to juggle with completing his doctorate program.
Go where the work is
In academia, they say “publish or perish.” In historical jobs, it’s “go where the work is.” Both Keagle and Peters have seen would-be-great archivists, curators or museum professionals lose out on opportunities simply because they were unwilling to move. But if you allow yourself a little flexibility, you can find great jobs all over the country.
Leaving his native New England for opportunities in the South ultimately gave Keagle the experience necessary to produce a vibrant, varied resume and land him his current job as a curator. “It allowed me to gain professional experience in a way that I would never have if I’d said, ‘You know, I’m going to go to New York City and get an internship at the Metropolitan Museum’ or someplace where I would have been a cog in the wheel of a major museum without any responsibility or opportunity.”
Peters experienced a similar situation. Working at small museums, like the one in Rhode Island where she had to do it all — archive, curate, and interact with the public — prepared her in ways she says she’d never had gotten at a larger institution.
Stay in touch
No matter which path you take to get to a job as a curator or an archivist, make your contacts count. Peters says never to underestimate the power of asking someone already working in the field out for a cup of coffee. “Someone can really stand out because they took the initiative to contact and speak with someone who has the job that they want,” she says.
When studying a curator or archivist job description, pick out unique keywords in the description that are most relevant for that position. Then use these keywords in your resume and cover letter. Taking this step can ensure you get your application past the applicant tracking system (ATS), which look for keywords as they scan and sort applications. Resumes and cover letters that don’t contain the right keywords stand a good chance of being automatically dumped into the rejection pile. Getting your resume and cover letter absolutely right could mean the difference between being overlooked and being hired.
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