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Museum Directors and Curators

History

More than any other museum workers, curators and directors are closely identified with the image and purposes of a museum, and the history of these positions has followed the fortunes of museums themselves.

Early precolonial and colonial museums were privately owned "cabinets of curios," but occasionally they were attached to a library or philosophical society, which allowed restricted viewing to members only. As the cabinet evolved into the museum through organized collecting and increased public access, there simultaneously arose some confusion over the mission of a museum and how that mission might best be achieved. The goals of museums, even of the same museum over time, began to alternate between a professional concentration on acquiring and studying collections, with some indifference to the interests of the public, and a contrary focus on visitor education and entertainment that occasionally turned into spectacles and sideshows as museums sought to raise money by any means. According to Joel Orosz, museum historian and author of Curators and Culture: The Museum Movement in America, 1740–1870 (University of Alabama Press, 2002), the alternating between museum professionalism and public education marked the first long span of U.S. museum history, from about 1740 to 1870. By 1870, however, the two trends had blended together, which Orosz refers to as the American compromise: Both popular education and scholarly research would be held as equal, coexisting goals. This achievement, the author asserts, arose out of uniquely American conditions, prior to several decades of efforts by British and European museums to install a similar mixture of goals, and permanently shaped the rest of U.S. museum history.

Orosz's analysis divides early museum history into roughly 20-year periods, during which either professionalism or popular education was influential. With few exceptions, curators and museum directors were unable to find a neutral middle ground. In the early 1800s, with the rise of a middle class, the museum world assessed its purpose. As old supporters of the professional museums retired, new leaders began to associate their museums with public libraries and schools. Lecture series, pamphlets, and collection-based education became standard parts of a museum's program of activities. Museums emphasized popular, self-education between 1820 and 1840 and have continued to include this feature in their missions since that time.

At different times during the first century of U.S. museum history, professionalism spurted ahead, driven by new scientific inventions and technologies, for most museums of the era were natural history museums. Popular education, on the other hand, benefited from improved mass transportation. Robert Fulton's design of the steamboat, the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, and the rise of the railroads gave travelers an alternative to tiring and dusty journeys by horse-drawn coach and allowed people from states as far away as Ohio and Kentucky to include eastern seaboard museums in their occasional travel plans. As distant travelers sought out museums, curators were gratified and responded with programs of more general, less scholarly interest. The concept of a national museum, free to all and representative of the nation as a whole, took root in the popular imagination and was finally achieved in 1846 with the opening of the Smithsonian Institution.

Following a period of national economic prosperity and intense museum-building activities in the years 1950 to 1980, the American compromise has again reached center stage, this time in a controversial light. With less discretionary money flowing through the economy, some museum directors believe it is no longer economically viable to maintain what amounts to two separate enterprises under one roof. Because public service is at the forefront of a modern museum's mission, museums are focusing on exhibits and programs for the public at the expense of support for research. Few taxpayers are repeat visitors to museums in any one year, and even fewer have any notion of what it is that museum directors and curators do. The coming decade will likely see increased revenue-generating activities for museums, a temporary freeze on museum allocations for research areas, or both. The financial stress is not uniquely felt by museums, for other civic institutions, notably symphony orchestras, have folded or sharply curtailed programs in the past few years. The American compromise faces some restructuring, introducing a period of uncertainty for many museum employees.

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