Building Your Museum Career – Specialist Skills vs General Skills

10q_alex_trebek_02 (1)Wow, look at that 1970’s mustache! This man is a 1970’s game show host and we’re going to play a game called Specialist skills vs General skills. Well sort of a game- more pro’s & con’s of each type of skills pitted against one another!

So without further ado let’s get started. So what do I mean when I say ‘specialist’ skills vs ‘general’ skills? Let’s take a look at the definition of  both words:

1. Specialist = a person who concentrates primarily on a particular subject or activity; a person highly skilled in a specific and restricted field: ‘he is a specialist in psychometric testing.’

2.  General = not specialized or limited in range of subject, application, activity, etc.: ‘brush up on your general knowledge.

So being a specialist would mean you would know everything about one or two subjects. And having general skills would mean you have experience in many different areas.

An example of a specialist would be having in-depth knowledge about one art movement e.g. Impressionism or one area of a museum e.g. Exhibitions. Where as an example of someone with general skills would have experience and knowledge in archives, exhibitions, various art movements etc.

So let’s move on to the ‘Pro’s & Con’s’ of both areas.


  • You could become a specialist curator,exhibitions assistant or researcher.
  • You could supplement your income by using your expertise to present papers, consult on different projects, TV work or writing articles or a book on your chosen specialism.
  • You may find it hard to find a permanent position as many ‘Specialist’ Curator jobs are being axed.  The Guardian published an excellent piece on the ‘disappearance’ of the Specialist Curator. Read it here.
  • You may overspread your abilities on different projects just to make ends meet. No job should take away from personal and family time.

However, I will say there is no problem with being an expert in some areas as you can apply that knowledge to your job. This could be done if you are working in more than one area in a museum i.e. exhibitions & curatorial assistant. So all that time reading about 18th century china tea sets might pay off!

32250_2‘Oooh I’d like a cup of tea, Oh wait no I shouldn’t! This tea set is from c 1750!’ photo (c)

Now on to the Pro’s & Con’s of General Skills:

  • You can gain experience in more than one area of a museum i.e. the shop, cafe, front of house or exhibitions.
  • You could start of working as a Shop Assistant and progress to Front of House then to Exhibitions. Thus gaining general skills in three areas.
  • You are essentially a ‘dogs-body’ museum person. Your skills would lend themselves to a small museum- though you would also work well in larger institutions!
  • You may have more employable skills than a ‘Specialist’.
  • However, with general skills you may find it hard to research certain topics for exhibitions or in an archive.
  • You may find it hard to secure a permanent post if you have only a few months experience in different areas when the post calls for six months front of house or a year in archives.

Bearing these points in mind, I will say having general skills are great. You get an idea of how a museum functions if you have worked in different departments. It is essentially a large machine with many cogs making the machine work!And below a little note on gaining more general historical/artistic knowledge:

If you don’t have a general knowledge of art history or history from e.g. c 1700 it is worthwhile even reading brief summaries of these two topics. It can make researching exhibitions a lot easier!

Now, we have looked at the pro’s & con’s of both sets of skills. So what conclusions have you come to? Are you more of a specialist or a generalist? Or wait are you a bit of both? I’m right with you- as I’m a bit of both!

The whole point of this blog post was not to persuade you to pick specialist vs general skills – it was to make you aware that you should have both types of skill! Did you figure that out? Well done! You deserve that cup of tea and a slice of cake. Bring me one whilst your at it. Thanks.

*insert waiting music here for the Tea & Cake break*

Right, back to the blog post. Now I shall tell you my own story (in brief) of my career experience to date. I have worked primarily in archives and the retail end of Museums. I have voluntary experience managing social media sites, researching , writing articles, presenting papers, conservation etc. I consider myself to have a lot of general skills.

However, I also have some specialist areas as well. These areas stem out of personal interests more than professional. I have specialist knowledge about textiles, WW2, Impressionism and 1770’s France. Eclectic, I know! But, these specialisms have enabled me to contribute to exhibitions and research in the jobs that I have worked at.

So do you see what the answer is?


Ta da! By all means read that book on dinosaurs whilst working in the museum shop. Watch YouTube videos on how to mount textiles whilst working in education. Who knows where your specialist and general skills shall take  you!

Until next time, adios!


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