Today marks five years of working as a freelance consultant in the museums, heritage, interpretation and public engagement worlds. I’m also currently working on a presentation for the Museums Association Careers Hub titled: “Expertise for hire: successful working with freelancers” so let me share today some thoughts on why I struck out on my own five years ago, how it’s been, and on the wider climate for freelancing in the sector.
The Changing Workforce
Around one in seven of the UK workforce is self-employed. Of these, nearly two million are independent professionals, selling their expertise as freelancers, contractors or consultants and that is 70% more than two decades ago*.
According to the National Skills Academy for the Creative & Cultural industry:
– 43% of the current creative industries workforce is self-employed.
– Self-employment is where the growth is.
– 78% of creative businesses have fewer than five employees
What about Museums and Heritage?
I’m not aware of any concrete data but it certainly seems to me that there are increasing numbers of freelancers in our industry and of freelance contracts. Back in 1996 the GEM freelance network noted changing employment patterns and the growth in the use of freelancers and consultants in the field of education in museums. Anecdotally I have seen more freelancers at conferences such as the Museums Association and the Visitor Studies Group and I have seen posts made redundant within museums with the specific plan that the work would be commissioned on an ad-hoc basis from external partners (often but not exclusively freelancers).
Tamsin Russell Professional Development Officer at the Museums Association has said “The workforce model is changing for a variety of reasons to mean that increasingly and effectively museums are volunteer run, and freelance supported. These are two customer groups that are not currently adequately serviced – this is an area of improvement for the Museums Association.”
What do Freelance Consultants do?
Well according to Dogbert they make a lot of money for not doing much at all:
Obviously I don’t believe that is the case and I hope that isn’t the experience of most people in this sector. Certainly working for museums is never going to be the route to riches for anybody!
People go into freelancing for various reasons at various stages of their career in various different roles. I’ve been in the sector since 1998/99. I started my career on the Science Museum’s Wellcome Wing project. My first contract was a fixed term post for a year or so, then I had a two-year fixed term on digital projects, then another term back on temporary exhibitions, then a “permanent” managerial job which I was promptly seconded from to another role planning future projects across what was then NMSI (now Science Museum Group).
In 2005 I moved back to Edinburgh to the National Museum of Scotland on a two-year fixed term contract as science communication manager, project managing a new hands-on science gallery, then secured a four-year contract on the 20011-opening HLF redevelopment.
This is not in any way a unique story, many of us in this sector who thrive on project work have followed the capital and gained valuable experience along the way. However, we have to keep moving because most organisations only get one shot, maybe two, at a big capital project. Despite the best efforts of the funders and others in the sector to evaluate and share learning, ultimately most organisations start from scratch when they embark on a redisplay.
After the 2011 re-opening at NMS, I looked around and saw a lot of exciting work in the sector that needed to be done, but no actual jobs within organisations that excited me. I had 12 years experience at this point and had often employed freelancers myself so I was in the fortunate position of knowing a lot about the logistics of freelancing and that there was a need for what I could do.
My main motivation when I started out as a freelancer was to share my experience and spread the learning. And that is what I am still doing now, with even more learning from more different organisations as I have now worked for a very broad range of museums, botanic gardens, visitor centres, funders, community trusts, design companies and I teach a university course. I can honestly say I have never regretted it once. Each client I share my learning and experience which, in turn, teaches me new lessons to go on and share with the next client. This is one of the great benefits that I believe freelancers bring to the sector.
However, conversely I am worried about organisational learning and I do think that is a conversation we ought to be having.
This cartoon is scarily accurate and I’ve found myself in this position more than once with largely absent clients. I think it’s really important that organisations think carefully about why they might be choosing a freelancer or consultant rather than an employee for a particular role. There are good reasons to look for a freelancer: to add temporary capacity to existing staffing, lack of in-house expertise or because you specifically want an external/objective approach. But organisations should consider carefully how using a consultant will benefit your existing staff and increase capability. Choosing a freelancer is not an easy option – don’t expect it to solve all your problems! To get the most from the relationship you will still have to be involved with and committed to the project and provide support, facilities, finance, time and management. Do your staff have the skills to find, select and manage freelancers?
The workforce is changing as are working life and career structures – not just in our own sector – let’s embrace that change with a positive and learning mindset to capitalise on the benefits and be mindful of the potential pitfalls.
Thank you to everyone who has been part of the last five years and here’s to another five years and beyond!
*Source: IPSE Guide to Freelancing, 2016/17
The MA conference Careers Hub is free and open to non-delegates, Glasgow, 7 & 8 November: http://www.museumsassociation.org/conference/careers-hub