Thoughts on going it alone as a Museum Consultant

Follow these tips from Maria Blyzinsky and you could soon be taking control of your daily grind

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Several years ago, I made the decision to jump into freelancing. To an outsider, it may have seemed an odd choice. I’d been working in museums for sixteen years, and had managed to climb the greasy pole of curatorship to reach the dizzying heights of head of exhibitions for a national museum. I had a permanent post and a Civil Service pension. But I was also ready for a change of direction.

Six years and a protracted credit crunch later, I still relish the challenge of being independent. I co-founded The Exhibitions Team, a consortium of museum professionals with a track record in developing and delivering displays. I’ve been extremely lucky to weather the storms of recession, financial cuts and austerity, but my nose has been permanently strapped to the proverbial grindstone to make things happen.

It’s surprising how often my employed colleagues ask wistfully about becoming a freelancer. So here are my top tips for going solo in the museum and heritage sector.

 

1. It’s all in the preparation

Think carefully about your reasons for going it alone and talk to other people who have made the change. I sought the advice of a mentor who could tell me what it was really like on the other side. Being self-employed was in my blood. My parents ran their own business and my aunt was an antiques dealer. I’d often worked for them as a student so I was unfazed by hard graft or double-entry book-keeping. Being a freelancer is effectively the same as running your own business. Make sure you can cope with the tax and legal implications by checking out the brilliant free resources offered by HMRC.

 

2. Know thyself

Ask searching questions about your attitude and flexibility. Do you have a financial cushion to see you through the lean times? Are you in good health? Can you cope with a heavy workload, early mornings and late nights? Could you please several clients at the same time? If you are at all concerned about any of your answers, maybe admit that now isn’t the right time to go solo.

Also ask yourself what things you are good at doing and why clients should offer you work. If you’re not sure how to answer these questions, ask someone you trust to tell you the truth. Don’t dismiss skills such as creating spreadsheets, project management and writing exhibition labels. Clients usually get in touch when they are struggling with overload. At such times, it can be difficult for them to think clearly. A simple spreadsheet, a succinct report and a quick meeting to get staff on board might be all it takes to make a difference. One client apologised when she asked me to draw up a risk register for a meeting, but was delighted when I was able to reduce an overly complex project into something more manageable. Heritage clients are reassured by being able to turn to ‘one of their own’, while peripheral skills may offer the client a quick way out of a sticky fix.

3. Embrace your weaknesses

There’s no IT Helpdesk where you’re going – so learn to set-up your own computer, accept that you will have to pay for someone else to do it, or nurture friends who can do it for you (see point 4 below). In my previous life, I could never master Gantt charts. Nobody else in the organisation liked them either, so I was allowed to ignore my weakness. Then I was offered a freelance opportunity as producer of a series of digital interactives for a prestigious new learning centre. The project required a Gantt chart to manage a complex range of tasks such as script-writing, animations, location filming and editing. Even more importantly, the chart was linked to the client’s invoicing procedure. No Gantt chart, no pay. I swiftly obtained the relevant software and checked YouTube for bite-sized training sessions which I followed assiduously. I also persuaded a friend to give me a two-hour master class. My first Gantt chart may have been basic, but it was approved by the client and the invoice was cleared. There’s nothing like the threat of delayed payment to concentrate the mind of a freelancer.

 

4. Nurture your network

Word of mouth recommendation is one of the most powerful tools in the freelancer’s cache. Take every opportunity to meet people in the sector and keep in touch with them. But always have a good reason to get in touch and make yourself useful, never pester them. Perhaps you could send a web-link to an article associated with their line of work, maybe you have thought of an interesting way to solve a knotty problem that they mentioned, or you might introduce two people who should know each other. One morning, I received a request to compile a major funding application with an urgent deadline. I met the prospective client that afternoon who, after telling me all about the project, simply asked when I might be able to start. ‘Don’t you want to know more about me?’ I enquired. I was told, ‘There’s no need. You come highly recommended so I know you can do this’. I’m pleased to report that the funding application was successful, and I’ve been invited back to manage another project.

 

5. Stay sharp

As an independent freelancer, you must take charge of your own professional development. Use opportunities for solving a client’s problems as a challenge for sharpening your own skills. Last year, I became a trustee for the National Jazz Archive, a small organisation which has been awarded a handsome HLF grant to catalogue its collection and raise its profile. With few paid staff, the Archive relies on volunteers to do much of the work, most of whom are enthusiasts with no heritage background. The trusteeship has been a fantastic way to refresh my knowledge of best practice procedures across a wide range of operational and management issues.

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Author: Maria Blyzinsky is a museum consultant and freelance curator, as well as a founding member of The Exhibitions Team, www.theexhibitionsteam.com. She tweets about exhibitions and culture as @MariaBlyzinsky

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on going it alone as a Museum Consultant

  1. Wonderfully insightful guide – especially as the world of freelancing can seem quite closley guarded.

    I’ve also been reading the posts on early museum career professionals and the perceived inadequacies of education and training. I would certainly like to have heard more about career options, such as museum consultancy, when I was undertaking my MA in Museum Studies – albeit a choice for the more experienced museum professional.

    How many of us in these uncertain times have thought ‘oh, I’ll just go freelance’ but this post highlights the pros and cons!

    1. Thanks Sonia.

      I agree that this kind of advice was thin on the ground when I was starting out as a curator. I’d even go so far as to say that freelancing was often treated with suspicion, so for many years I kept my ‘dream’ locked away for fear that I’d be sneered at. It doesn’t suit everyone, but it is certainly an option worth considering.

      I’d love to hear how others have experienced this.

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