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Archaeologists & Museum Work

By: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 1 Aug 2016 | comments*Discuss
Museum Artefacts Curator Conservator

Professional archaeologists are employed by universities governments and in private companies. They are also required to fulfil the essential roles inside a museum. Archaeologists who enter museum work perform a variety of tasks from teaching and providing information to the public to analysing artefacts and writing technical reports for publication.

Education Requirements

The minimum educational prerequisite for employment as a field archaeologist is usually a B.A. or B.S. degree, majoring in anthropology or archaeology coupled with proven field experience on an archaeological dig. This may be adequate for professional employment on an archaeological excavation as a standard staff member but it is not sufficient to gain employment as the curator of a public museum.

Top museum positions call for a graduate degree of not less than an M.A. or Ph.D. if the position is full-time. The Ph.D. requires two to three years of study beyond the M.A. and will include a successful oral defence of a dissertation of original research in a specialist field of archaeology. However, not all staff at the museum will require such extensive academic training.

Variety of Work

In an archaeological museum, apart from secretarial and clerical staff, there are archivists, technicians and curators. Their main common goal is to acquire, preserve and display important artefacts in a manner that will create permanent, instructional exhibitions. They will all, at one time or another, be called upon to analyse, describe and catalogue the objects in the museum collection and will be asked to maintain permanent exhibits that will benefit both researchers and the public.

The Curator

Curators run the administrative affairs of the museum. The chief curator is often the museum director and will be accountable to any executive board of governors. Curators will direct the acquisition, storage, and display of the museum’s collection of artefacts and will, if necessary, negotiate the purchase of new objects, sell or exchange existing items, and decide which objects can be loaned to researchers or for exhibitions outside of the museum. They will also be required to authenticate artefacts in the collection, classify or reclassify as necessary and withdraw any specimens found to be unsuitable.

As most curators have a master’s degree in a specialty subject they will often be responsible for conducting the museum’s research programmes and overseeing major educational projects. A curator in a large institution may be highly specialised and will focus on a specific collection, for example, only pottery of the classical period. On the other hand, a small museum may only employ one curator whose knowledge will need to be far more general and encompassing.

Other than a small entrance fee most museums receive no regular revenue and are heavily reliant on local municipalities, government and trusts for funding. Therefore, the curator today is increasingly becoming a fundraiser. This part of the job might include preparing written grant applications, submitting promotional material to journals and magazines and generally being the public relations officer of the museum at conventions and local civic events.

The Archivist

The archivist is a conservator of the museum’s artefact collection. Conservators will manage the collection by caring for each piece. This might include the preservation and/or treatment of artefacts using scientific processes. The archivist is also interested in the examination of artefacts to determine their condition, the need for remedial treatment or restoration procedures and the appropriate method for storage. Conservators will be familiar with various laboratory-testing techniques, chemical analysis, microscopy, infrared, ultraviolet and x-ray light systems of examination.

Like their curator colleagues, the archivist usually specialises in a particular field. Some archivists will be experts in conserving cloth or fabric items while others may be skilled in the preservation treatments of metals.

The Technician

Museum technicians help curators and archivists by performing the preparatory tasks on the museum’s collection of artefacts. Some curators may seek the assistance of promising technicians to help them with their research projects but generally the archaeological museum technician will be confined to the preparation and maintenance of the display of items.

Work Conditions

The work conditions for museum staff vary from institution to institution. In larger museums there may be curators who dedicate most of their time dealing only with the public, providing educational lectures and guided tours. Elsewhere, in a large museum, there may be researchers who constantly work alone or with few others around them. Technicians will often be required to lift bulky, heavy objects such as marble or bronze statues, build or reassemble exhibition settings that might include painting and decorating in a period style and in large, multi-level museums may frequently walk many miles every day.

Above all, the staff of any archaeological museum will have a professional attitude toward the principles, methods and practices of archaeological conservancy. If archaeology is to succeed in projecting artefacts toward the public in order to inform them about past cultures and civilizations then the role of the museum staff to design and create interesting exhibits will always be necessary.

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Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice..
Hi I have always had a passion for history and it is my dream to work with artifacts! I am looking at starting university but am not quite sure what the best degree would be! I am looking at either a ba hons in conservation or a ba hons in archeology and ancient history. I'm not sure which one would give me the best career opportunities or be the best way to get my foot in the door... if anyone could help me i would be truely greatful. Many thanks Jen
JJay - 1-Aug-16 @ 10:05 AM
Hello to all, I am interested in applying for a job in a museum. I have a M.A. degree in Archaeology from Sofia University (Bulgaria). I don't really have any more experience apart of my training. I have never worked in a museum before. Unfortunately for the time being i work in the tourist area for about 10 years. What are my chances to find a job as an archaeologist and if my University degree can be accepted? If maybe I have to take some additional courses? Thank you very much. Svetlena
Svetlena - 22-May-15 @ 8:51 AM
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