A career as a Social History Curator

Historians who work in museums develop and preserve object-based collections and research them as they investigate and interpret the past. In addition to the skills of analysis, writing and research required of all historians, they have a number of specialised historical skills, including an ability to interpret objects and photographs within a historical context, and using oral histories and family stories in research.

Photo of curators with an Edwardian pageboy’s jacket

Curators assess the historical significance of an Edwardian pageboy’s jacket that has been offered to the museum
Photographer: Moya McFadzean / Source: Museum Victoria

Museum historians collect objects relating to historical themes, which throw light on historical questions and help to interpret the past. As objects are collected, information about their provenance (history) and context (the set of assumptions, feelings and expectations surrounding their manufacture and use) is also collected. This information is used in the interpretation of the objects. In this research, a wide range of evidence, including documentary research, oral history interviews and photographic research, is used.

When developing exhibitions, museum historians explore historical themes by combining objects, written labels, photographs and interactive and multimedia displays.

Many people in the community have specialist and detailed knowledge about the artefacts of our past, so museum historians work closely with community groups, academics and others who have an interest in the collection. These people are encouraged to use and study the collections, broadening our historical perspective of a particular object.

Generally, museum historians have an honours or post-graduate degree in history or in a related field such as art history. It is often an advantage to have completed a course that focuses on museum studies. These include the Masters of Arts in Gallery and Museum Studies at Monash University, the Graduate Certificate and Diploma in Museum Studies at Deakin University, and the Masters in Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

Photo of the numismatics curator

The numismatics curator carefully places valuable coins in special storage units
Photographer: Moya McFadzean / Source: Museum Victoria

Becoming a member of a professional museum association is also an advantage. Museums Australia provides training, networking and publishing opportunities that keep museum workers in touch with the broader museum community.

Comments (11)

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rachael waith 28 September, 2010 16:20
i will be finishing a ba in fine arts this year and want to go into library associated work, museum curatorship or any thing to do with museums. is there anyway i could do some work with you?
Discovery Centre 30 September, 2010 10:59
Hi Rachael! You'll find our employment page here. MV only accepts applications for advertised positions, so keep an eye on that page for jobs that may interest you!
Karen Wykes 23 January, 2011 12:01
I have just completed a Diploma of Museum Practice and an involved with setting up exhibitions and collection management at our local historical society. Would I need a further degree to get a paid job in this area? I am a muture age with lots of work experience. Regards Karen
Discovery Centre 26 January, 2011 10:12
Hi Karen - a good way of adding to your academic qualification in this area is to become involved in the Museum Victoria Volunteer program; you can find out more about this here http://museumvictoria.com.au/about/work-opportunities/volunteering/.
Kent Tomlinson 8 June, 2011 20:36
I am an experienced teacher of History, Geography, Politics & Classical Studies. I have completed a Grad Dip in Public History. Is the volunteer programme my way into Museum Education officer type full time paid work?
Discovery Centre 6 August, 2011 14:52
Hi Allanah, take a look at the links on the right hand side, they will direct you to various university courses that might interest you.
Emma 26 February, 2012 14:34
I have just completed a Bachelor of Archaeology and have a special interest in archiving, conservation and historical research. I am hoping to to find work within museums. Do you as an employer have a preference for an honours degree or a post graduate diploma in museum studies?
Discovery Centre 1 March, 2012 16:37

Hi Emma,

The qualification needed depends on the advertised role and the successful applicant would be selected based on merit.

Meg 12 October, 2015 12:46
I was wondering if an honours degree is required for a curator position in a museum? Is a post graduate diploma in museum studies as highly recognized as an honors degree in regards to a curator role?
Discovery Centre 17 October, 2015 12:14
Hi Meg,

Qualifications for curatorial work can vary, depending on the type of museum, the discipline, the entry level etc. In terms of social history (as opposed to sciences, anthropology, archaeology, technology, indigenous studies, etc), people tend to have an undergraduate history degree, and then post grad in history, public history, museum studies, curatorship, etc.

Often it’s about demonstrating subject area expertise, research and written/verbal communication skills which can all be gained from a more history discipline approach, which can be augmented by museology theory, even within those courses.

Demonstrated understanding of material culture and memory as evidence is very important. Students undertaking history degrees often undertake internships with museums to gain object research, handling, database skills.

Carmel 15 May, 2016 10:12
Are you aware of any workshops set up to train historical society volunteers about proper handling of archival materials? Ideally Melbourne or western suburbs location.
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