Become an Architectural Historian: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn about the requirements to become an architectural historian in this video. Learn about the job description and duties and see the step-by-step process to start a career in architectural history.

Should I Become an Architectural Historian?

Architectural historians help to restore and preserve historical buildings. They can work for cultural preservation organizations, government heritage agencies, museums, private organizations, and public planning boards. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), these professionals fall into the field of conservators, curators, and museum technicians. They may specialize in preserving architectural material, conducting historical tours of buildings, performing extensive research, or helping with fundraising activities.

Architectural historians who work for larger conservation agencies may need to travel often to visit historical sites. They may need to be able to lift heavy objects at restoration sites. Though the BLS predicts high competition for these jobs, it also predicts steady overall growth in the field for the 2012-2022 decade.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Master's required; Ph.D. recommended
Degree Field History, archival management, museum studies, cultural resources management, landscape architecture, historic preservation, urban planning, or hospitality management
Licensure and Certification Licensure isn't needed unless an applicant becomes a professional architect
Experience Two-to-seven years of experience in any or all of the following: event planning, non-profit fundraising, research, teaching, or writing
Key Skills Communication, analytical, creative, problem-solving, financial, management, research, and writing skills
Salary (2014) $55,870 per year (Median salary for all historians)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, University of California, Santa Barbara, Historic Preservation Field Services Bureau.

Step 1: Complete a Bachelor's Degree Program

Architectural historians may earn bachelor's degrees in art history or hold degrees that focus on one or more historical periods. Several academic institutions offer bachelor's degree programs in architectural history. There are also architecture schools that offer an emphasis in art and historic preservation. Other options include urban planning and related disciplines.

In addition to non-western architecture, students in architectural history programs could study western architectural styles from ancient through modern times. Historic preservation students follow a multidisciplinary curriculum that could include preservation philosophy, architectural history, urbanism, museum studies, relevant history topics, and preservation law. Students in these programs often have opportunities to conduct fieldwork or research at local museums and other sites.

Success Tips:

  • Consider an honors program. Some schools offer honors programs for students who want to engage in advanced art history research. In addition to other requirements, students may participate in a two-semester research project that culminates in a thesis.
  • Select a double major. Art and architectural history programs might offer double majors.
  • Complete an internship. Architectural history majors can supplement their studies with internships. These programs could be part of the regular curriculum. Options often include working or volunteering in museums, galleries and architectural firms. In some cases, students create or pursue their own internship opportunities. A student who is interested in interning at a specific architectural firm, gallery, or museum can contact an undergraduate advisor to ensure it's on the school's approved list.
  • Join an art history association. Consider joining an art history association or attending other campus and community events. This may assist with choosing a specialty.
  • Study abroad. Many architectural history programs offer undergraduate students the opportunity to study abroad. In addition to receiving classroom instruction, students are exposed to foreign cultures, historic building sites, and museums. Students should select a program that aligns with their personal or professional goals, and expands their knowledge of other countries' architecture and cultural history. Use your study abroad experience as an opportunity to learn or brush up on a foreign language, and to get comfortable traveling in places with different cultures.
  • Explore non-traditional positions. If you're pursuing an undergraduate degree in architectural history and you're not sure if you want to pursue an advanced degree, explore job options in other areas, such as business, communications, journalism, and publishing.
  • Learn to draw. Drawing is an important skill for any historian of art or architecture. Be sure to take art courses in college as you prepare to pursue a graduate degree.
  • Learn how to use computer design software. Architectural historians may be asked to reconstruct plans or create models of buildings using specialized design software.

Step 2: Obtain a Graduate Degree

According to the BLS, historians often have a master's (M.A.) or doctoral degree (Ph.D.). It takes approximately two years to complete an M.A., while a Ph.D., depending upon the emphasis, may take up to four or more years. Research-based positions usually require a Ph.D.

Master's degree programs may emphasize art and architectural history, art conservation, historical preservation education, or museum studies. Some schools offer a combined Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts program, such as a Master of Arts in Art and Architectural History. For students whose undergraduate degrees are in art history or historic preservation, a combined degree may take less time. These multidisciplinary programs may include coursework in historic preservation, historic methods, cultural studies, archival research, finance, and administration.

Ph.D. programs or combined master's and Ph.D. programs are other options to consider. These educational paths may appeal to professionals seeking life-long learning opportunities, as well as aspiring architectural historians who are interested in teaching at the university level or seeking research-intensive positions.

Success Tips:

  • Explore internships, field experience, and volunteer opportunities. Many master's degree programs have internship or field experience requirements, according to the BLS. These may also be required for some positions such as museum conservators or curators. Another way to gain relevant practical experience is to volunteer for a government agency, historical society, or museum. Historians working with architecture firms, museums, or archives should use that opportunity to learn to closely read and interpret architectural plans, conduct surveys, and analyze and evaluate buildings. Conservation firms may allow interns an opportunity to learn codes and regulations regarding the preservation of historic buildings.
  • Develop awareness of museum specialties. Since most museums seek applicants familiar with their specific focus, it's important to hone your degree, experience and knowledge.

Step 3: Gain Employment

Jobs for architectural historians could be posted on government websites, college websites, or regular job boards. Architectural historians may find employment with historic preservation or cultural heritage societies, universities, government agencies, public planning offices, and museums. They may maintain or restore historic buildings, educate the public about historic preservation, work in administration, or conduct research. The BLS states that some historians develop theories about specific developments, present their findings, and write articles and books. They may also be responsible for analyzing, archiving, and preserving materials of historic significance. Some architectural historians with doctorates teach at universities. Self-employment is another option.

Step 4: Join Professional Societies, Network, and Seek Advancement

Architectural historians usually join professional societies. The Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) is an organization that hosts conferences, posts employment, grant, and fellowship opportunities,and assists architects and historians with the legal aspects of site preservation. The SAH also offers an international study tour program that provides opportunities to earn American Institute of Architecture-approved continuing education credits. While enrolled, members may have access to buildings closed to the public, the opportunity to visit multiple sites designed by the same architect, or the chance to travel throughout a region that represents a specific architectural style or period.

Historians who wish to gain tenure may be required by their institutions, especially at the university level, to conduct and publish research in books and articles. Publication may also help university historians gain chaired positions or to join their institution's administration.

Architectural historians working with architectural firms may become partners at their firms. Those who work for museums may look to move into administration.

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