Museum Curator

Heather, now 24, attended both Trent University and Sir Sandford Fleming College (now Fleming College) in Peterborough. She completed an honours BA in history and a post-graduate diploma in museum management and curatorship concurrently. Officially, she has an honours BA with a special emphasis in museum studies. She graduated in June 2001 and in October moved to the lovely little town of Parry Sound, located on Georgian Bay. In February 2002, she accepted the position of Director/Curator of the West Parry Sound District Museum.

Stephanie: What made you decide to become a curator?
Like many people you will find running around behind the scenes at museums, I began my love affair with the museum world at a very young age. I just didn’t ever think of working in one until my final year of high school when I did a co-op placement at a small museum that was just starting up. For better or worse, I was hooked.

I didn’t intend to be a curator – that just kind of happened. Although my training is in museum curatorship and management in general, all of my efforts were focused on museum education – school programs, community outreach, etc. I worked part-time and had summer jobs as an Interpreter at the Canadian Canoe Museum. My first real grown-up job after graduating was as the Programming Coordinator for the West Parry Sound District Museum. Due to a bizarre twist of fate, serendipity or something else, four months after I was hired I was promoted to the daunting position of Director/Curator. Please note that this is not a usual step in the promotional ladder of the museum world. In fact, it’s rather shocking. I’m still not quite sure why it happened to me, but it did, and now six months later I guess I can call myself a curator by profession.

Stephanie: What do you like about your job?
No two days are ever alike.

I work long, hard hours but I (usually) feel like I come to work to play. I have fun. I am constantly learning new things and bizarre facts. I facilitate school programs and get to see the world through a child’s eyes for two hours at a time. I get to design and build exhibits. I get to play with power tools. This job requires pieces from every part of my brain and makes me somehow pull them all together. I am never bored.

Stephanie: What is your least favourite part of the job?
Museums are under-funded and under-appreciated. All museums. This is the biggest cause of stress in my job. There is never enough money, and many people outside of the museum world really do not understand that. It is frustrating to have big dreams and no funding to realize the full potential of our museums.

Stephanie: What advice do you have for someone considering becoming a curator?
Quite frankly, don’t enter any career within the museum world if you want to be rich. You won’t be. The pay, unless you reach the very top rungs of the ladder, is less than fantastic. The hours are long. The rewards are priceless. Enter the museum world because you have the passion, because you’ve experienced the museum bug and you love the unique world the jobs inhabit.

If you’re serious about entering the field, volunteer at a museum. It is the best way to get a feel for the profession, to get necessary experience and to get your foot in the door.

Stephanie: What kind of an education do you need to be a curator? What kind of education did you get?
The kind of education you need and how much you need is a big question these days. I guess the answer lies in what kind of job you’re looking for within a museum. It is possible to work your way up the ladder through experience and skill, but education is a good place to start.

There are college and university programs out there to train specifically for museum curatorship or other museum professions, but they are mainly post-graduate programs. You need to have at least two years of college or university to attend the college post-graduate diploma programs, or a BA or a BSc for a master's of museum studies. I did an honours BA in history concurrently with a post-grad diploma in museum curatorship.

The great thing about curators is that we’re all a little different and bring diverse backgrounds to the profession. A history background is probably the most common, but the way museums are diversifying these days, the sky is the limit. People with backgrounds in education, social services, Native studies, women’s studies, politics, comparative development, etc. all bring a unique and valuable set of skills to the profession.

Stephanie: What is your favourite museum? Or, what was the best exhibit you have seen?
Traditional museum exhibits bore me. I have a very short attention span and I need to interact with the exhibits; I usually prefer children’s museums or science centres because they offer that opportunity. I love playing in the Discovery Gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum.

If I had to pick a favourite grown-up exhibit, I would have to choose the exhibits at the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough. I had the opportunity to work there while the exhibits were under development and I am really impressed with the creativity and focus on interactive experiences that went into them.

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