In the realm of today’s museums, the role of museum educator can be both broad and quite finely pointed, depending on the institution and the level of administrative responsibility accrued to the position. Educators must maintain educational programs for the public that render material fresh, accessible, and attractive to many age groups.
Primary duties that remain constant across the spectrum include lecturing, creating and presenting new materials to groups of visitors, and maintaining accurate and current data on the exhibits or sites. These professionals work in many contexts, from traditional museums of natural or cultural history to historic homes or public history sites affiliated with the National Park Service. They may utilize their educational strengths as curators, archivists or analysts of artifacts in addition to their official roles as educators in order to maximize the reach of publicly funded museum budgets.
The national median salary for a museum educator position hovers around $32,000 per year. While it can range above $48,000 in some cases, these numbers are often accorded for the posts with greater responsibility or offered to individuals with many years of experience in the field.
As you begin your career, your salary will reflect your status in the field, falling somewhere between $18,000 and $25,000 per annum. This figure varies from posting to posting, mainly because many institutions employ several entry level educators on an hourly basis, and offer a salary to a more experienced individual who helps coordinate their efforts. While public funded museums are less generous than privately bolstered museums, you can expect the yearly salary of this position to rise as you gain knowledge of the practical workings and best practices of institutional programs.
Key Responsibilities and Duties
While they may function in other capacities within the realm of the museum, educators in many types of institutions have a stable core of tasks and duties they fulfill. They are responsible for the development and implementation of educational program regimens related to the overall mission and collections of their employer. This involves planning satellite programs structured around distinct collections throughout the year.
Educators may integrate long-term loan items, stable collections of art or artifacts, source new items, research existing collections, and develop a series of lectures and guided learning programs for a range of age groups. In many cases, they are also responsible for coordinating community outreach programs.
First, museum educators at all levels must possess the ability to interface with the public, irrespective of age group. Their primary goal is to share knowledge about collections, art, and artifacts with the public. Most institutions prefer candidates with experience working with the public, specifically in a museum, excellent written and verbal communication skills, a desire to work with others as well as the ability to work alone, and some degree of computer software proficiency.
Further, they must possess the ability to plan extensive programs with a changing roster of items at their avail. Educators should be familiar with lesson plan design, pedagogical approaches, and other common educational tools.
Educational Requirements and Experience
If you wish to be a museum educator, the most commonly required degree fields fall into Education, Museum Studies, Public History, and similar realms. For institutions with a particular focus, such as art or children’s museums, other types of focused degrees will render you an attractive candidate, such as Early Childhood Development or Art History. Most institutions do not require their cadre of educators to attain a higher degree beyond the undergraduate level, but they often desire individuals with work experience in the museum world—often as docents or junior staff.
Masters and Ph.D. degrees will open doors for advancement in the ranks of program coordination and design. With a master’s in Museum Studies or other desirable and related degree, individuals can potentially garner a higher starting salary as well as a more substantial title. One potentially attractive approach is to combine skill sets—by earning an undergraduate degree in a field of your choice and capping it with a master’s degree specifically focused on museum studies or public education.
Challenges and Joys
For those who want to teach but desire a different forum, this can be an incredibly rewarding career. It places education in a broader context, incorporating physical artifacts or art collections, and allows educators to interface with many different age groups. Because the purview of the museum is undergoing some drastic changes as it strives to remain a salient part of society—greater care with cultural contexts of collections and a general shift in pedagogical approaches—institutions across the country require those with a fresh perspective.
There may be times at which you cannot present information about a collection to the public because of sensitive cultural provenience or complicated provenance. This can be frustrating and require substantial revision of planned activities or lectures, depending upon the mission and ethos of your host institute. Another challenging constant in the museum world is the scarcity of funding. As deeper cuts are made to federal budgets—with increasingly harsh results for those working in the educational, arts, and museum fields—museum educators must often fill more than one role within their institution.
Beyond educational considerations, there are several steps you can take to begin your career before you formally enter the museum fold. First, get involved. Museums are no stranger to making do with less-than-adequate funding. However, the need of volunteers has only increased in recent years. While you may begin with simple, non-skilled tasks, as you become familiar with the institutions with which you volunteer, you’ll gain access to behind the scenes projects and the people who make them happen.
You cannot begin building a network too early. The museum world is quite a close-knit community, and future references may come from surprising places. Become familiar with those who run the volunteer programs, be present, learn, and offer your skills. This will stand you in good stead when you are ready to hunt for a job because even if your local museum can’t hire you, they’ll have resources and connections that will help you.
While public budgets may grow slender, there will always be a place for educators on the roles of any institution. Additionally, private donors and funding opportunities are growing in popularity, providing hope for many who are concerned. What is important to recall is that there are many types of museums who are looking for you.
They may be private institutions, such as the 49ers museum in Santa Clara, California, which is run by the 49ers Stadium Management Company. Or they can be children’s museums, like Brooklyn Children’s Museum, which is seeking an educator with skills specific to interfacing with our newest generation. Other institutions, such as Fernbank in Atlanta or MoMA in New York City will also welcome candidates for educators with specific knowledge bases of natural science or art history, respectively.
Whatever your passion, there is a museum for it with a need for guidance and vision in its educational program. Just remember, render yourself an attractive candidate with multiple skill sets, volunteer and make connections, and keep your eye peeled for higher education opportunities while you study, work, and build a network of connections in the museum world.