Like the social impact sector itself, museums tend to attract passionate, enthusiastic employees who are lifelong learners. If this sounds like you, there may be a museum job out there that’s a perfect fit.
Most museums and cultural institutions in the United States are nonprofits. Their funding comes from a variety of sources, including private donors, earned income, and grants from government agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts. Though each museum has a specific niche, they all have similar missions—to preserve culture, history, and science for the benefit of the public.
What kinds of jobs are available?
Museums hire for a range of positions, some of which vary depending on the type of institution. A natural history museum may want educators with science backgrounds, while a children’s museum might need professionals in early childhood education. But there are a few roles most museums need to fill.
- Guest service. To keep day-to-day operations running smoothly, museums need cashiers, people at the information desk, gift shop retail workers, security guards, and more.
- Docent or educator. This is a fun job—you may give tours and impress attendees with little-known facts. Educators at more "hands-on" spots like science or children’s museums often staff exhibits. A bachelor’s degree is often required, and for some jobs your degree will need to be in a discipline closely related to the museum subject.
- Museum technician or registrar. Technicians handle displays, collections, and exhibits, including all the complex details hidden from the public—like acquisition, risk management, transportation, and maintenance. Detail-oriented folks will thrive in this job. You’ll usually need at least a bachelor’s degree in a related subject like history, archaeology, or fine arts.
- Development professional. Like any other nonprofit, a museum needs good communicators on the development team. You may write grants, interact with donors, and plan events. A bachelor’s degree in a communications-related field is usually required.
- Graphic designer. Museums create a lot of marketing material, and they need designers to create brochures, posters, splashy websites, and more. You’ll need a bachelor’s degree in a related field, and possibly a portfolio of previous work.
- Membership officer. Museums like to keep track of—and reward—their members. You’ll manage member databases, work with marketing teams, and help decide which perks members get. For folks with an accounting or business degree, this might be a good fit.
- Store manager. The gift shop, also known as the best part of your school museum trips, needs a manager familiar with the ins and outs of retail. Previous retail and supervisory experience may be required or strongly recommended.
- Archivist. Archivists do the work of preserving the museum’s history. You may check the authenticity of artifacts and documents, manage print and digital records, and plan public outreach programs. This knowledge-intensive job usually requires a master’s degree in art history, museum studies, or another topic related to the organization’s specialty.
- Curator. Curators decide which materials the museum will exhibit. You’ll work with museum technicians to care for collections, prepare items for public viewing, and do research to find new and exciting exhibits. You’ll generally need a master’s degree in the museum's field (e.g. art history for an art museum, biology for a natural history museum). For smaller museums a bachelor’s degree may be enough.
Art museums are distinct from art galleries—museums don’t sell artwork, and they usually have both permanent and rotating collections. Some museums have subspecialties, like folk art, sculpture, or works from certain areas of the world.
Almost any major city has at least one art museum, and idealist.org has a diverse and growing list including:
- Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit, MI — a dynamic hybrid of visual arts, performing arts, music, and literature
- Museum of American Bird Art at Mass Audubon, Canton, MA — the artistic arm of Mass Audubon, a nature conservation center
- Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles, CA — a spot dedicated to visual art, film, and any other art form that tells a story; scheduled to open in 2022
History museums are just as wide-ranging as art museums. Some preserve houses of famous residents, some memorialize major historical events, and some present the culture of a specific region. Here are a few standouts across the country:
- Museum of History and Industry, Seattle, WA: exhibits highlight the maritime, exploratory history of the Pacific Northwest and collect stories from around the world
- Museum of Printing History, Houston, TX: a niche museum tracing the evolution of printing through the centuries
- National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, TN: honors the American Civil Rights Movement and raises awareness of global human rights initiatives
Science, nature, and technology museums
Natural history museums preserve plants and animals in their collections, while science and technology museums offer interactive demonstrations. Either way you’re learning without realizing it. Two to keep on your list:
- Museum of Science, Boston, MA: a spot with something for everyone from young aspiring engineers to curious adults
- Museum of Discovery and Science, Fort Lauderdale, FL: a kid-centered but adult-friendly museum focusing on the natural history of Florida
Museums catering to young patrons have fun, active exhibits often staffed by trained educators. If you have a background in child development or K-12 education, you might like a role working directly with guests or behind the scenes designing exhibits. A few creative places to check out below:
- KID Museum, Bethesda, MD: a Washington, D.C.-adjacent museum with an emphasis on STEM and arts learning
- Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, PA: a spot designed for young children with a garden, a woodworking lab, a nursery, and a craft workshop
- Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, Portland, ME: a busy place with live theater performances, animals, puppet shows, classes, and celebrations
Interested in a museum job? Browse Idealist.org to find more museums around the world and keep up to date with who’s hiring.