A curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution (e.g., archive, gallery, library, museum or garden) is a content specialist responsible for an institution's collections and, together with a publications specialist, their associated collections catalogs. The object of a curator's concern necessarily involves tangible objects of some sort, whether it be inter alia artwork, collectibles, historic items or scientific collections.
In larger institutions, the curator's primary function is as a subject specialist, with the expectation that he or she will conduct original research on objects and guide the organization in its collecting. Such institutions can have multiple curators, each assigned to a specific collecting area (e.g. Curator of Ancient Art, Curator of Prints and Drawings, etc.) and often operating under the direction of a head curator. In such organizations, the physical care of the collection may be overseen by museum collections managers or museum conservators, and documentation and administrative matters (such as insurance and loans) are handled by a museum registrar.
In contemporary art, the title curator is given to a person who better produces knowledge and better picture of any situation. This might involve finding a strategy for display. Thematic, conceptual and formal approaches are all prevalent. In addition to selecting works, the curator often is responsible for writing labels, catalog essays, and other supporting content for the exhibition. Such curators may be permanent staff members, be "guest curators" from an affiliated organization or university, or be "freelance curators" working on a consultant basis. The late twentieth century saw an explosion of artists organising exhibitions. The artist-curator has a long tradition of influence. Notable among these was Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder of the Royal Academy, London.
More recently, advances in new technologies has led to a further widening of the role of curator. This has been focused in major art institutions internationally and has become an object of academic study and research.
In some American organizations, the term curator is also used to designate the head of any given division of a cultural organization. This has led to the proliferation of titles such as "Curator of Education" and "Curator of Exhibitions". This trend has increasingly been mirrored in the United Kingdom in such institutions as Ikon, Birmingham, UK and Baltic, Gateshead, UK.
In Australia and New Zealand, the person who prepares a sports ground for use (especially a cricket ground) is known as a curator. This job is equivalent to that of groundsman in some other cricketing nations.
Recently, the increased complexity of many museums and cultural organizations and the corresponding emergence of professional programs in field such as Museum Studies, Arts Administration, and Public History, have encouraged the development of curators with training in non-academic areas such as non-profit administration, fundraising, and public education.
Today, as art institutions face an array of new challenges, the role of the curator is being re-thought. One consequence of this has been the emergence of academic courses in contemporary art and curatorial practice (e.g., at the Kingston University, UK, Goldsmiths College, UK, Royal College of Art, UK, University of Sunderland, UK, California College of the Arts, USA, Bard College, USA, Université de Rennes II, France, etc.).