I tried museum freelancing so you don’t have to.

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In January 2017 I had just started a 2 day a week curatorial role in a museum, and was wondering what I would do with myself for the rest of the week and how I would make ends meet. I had been attracted to the idea of freelancing before, but had heeded the warnings to feather your nest with a decent amount of savings behind you before quitting your job and going it alone, and I wasn’t in a position to do that. My new permanent part-time contract seemed a fair substitute for this savings cushion– I knew I would have some regular money coming in, and no other complementary part-time jobs presented themselves, so I thought I would give freelancing a go.

I have begun 2018 by adding another 2 days of traditional employment to my week, but I am still dabbling with freelance work in my remaining free day. 2017 was a big experiment for me, and it left me fairly sure that the freelance life is not the one for me. Here’s why:

Freelancing doesn’t suit everyone

I read a lot of advice at the beginning (see links below) about how to avoid the more stressful aspects of freelancing, and yet I still feel prey to many of them. I felt somewhat thrust into freelancing. It was something I was curious about, but I would not have launched into it if my circumstances had been different. It’s not a way of working that suits everyone, and that’s OK. For some not knowing what you will be working on from one month to the next is exciting, for others it will lead to stress and anxiety. It’s important to know yourself and consider your real motives for freelancing. If it is because you love variety and believe this lifestyle will suit you, great. But if you are drawn to freelancing solely because of the lack of other employment opportunities in your sector it is unlikely to go well. That said…

There is freelancing and ‘freelancing’

Many freelance opportunities in the museum sector are in learning and engagement. Museums often need flexible people who came come in to develop and deliver sessions or events, but don’t have the need or capacity for a full-time employee in this role. My area of interest and expertise is in collections, where there is less of this short-term need/opportunity. I have eventually managed to find freelance collections-focused work which fits around my other jobs, but like so many things in life this was largely down to timing and who I already knew.

When I was starting out on this journey I thought that freelance opportunities might eventually become a good alternative to volunteering and internships in the sector – there is flexibility and less commitment for the employer, and the freelancer gets compensated for their time. With the gig economy flourishing in other fields, I began to wonder what it could mean for more flexible working in museums. I saw examples such as the London Transport Museum’s Young Freelance scheme as paving the way forward in this area.

However, a major lesson I have learnt since dipping my toes in the world of freelancing it that, like the worst examples of the gig economy, some roles advertised as ‘freelance’ or self-employed can just mean that the employer wants to avoid the cost, and the associated employment rights, of taking someone on an as employee. While the LTM scheme pays a rate of £11 per hour, I have seen museum posts advertised as freelance which pay the hourly ‘national living wage’ of £7.50.  This is of course less than the Living Wage Foundation’s rate of £8.75, and when you take into account the added costs to the freelancer, including covering holiday and sick pay, this rate is actually not liveable. Any training or entry level job scheme which pays people for their labour and skills is a commendable step forward from unpaid internship culture, but unless these opportunities pay a real living wage (or freelance rate) they will still exclude people.

I underestimated the value (both financial and otherwise) of my time

Because I didn’t have a financial cushion ready, I took the first piece of work that was offered to me. This was despite the fact that it was not in an area that I was particularly passionate about, or one that I had substantial experience in. It was not in museums, but could be described as museum-adjacent. I saw it as a learning opportunity, and a chance to broaden my heritage skills. The money was sufficient, and definitely worked out at a living wage as described above. Nonetheless, settling for work that allowed me to earn just enough money meant that I still felt constantly under pressure to squeeze in a bit more work. I didn’t allow myself enough extra time for building my brand, networking, admin and all the other hidden tasks that come along with freelancing. This is standard advice for freelancers but I think it is worth repeating, since it can be tempting to settle for less lucrative work when you are starting out and don’t have confidence or knowledge of the freelance landscape.

More than any other type of work, you have to love what you do

Some of the projects I have taken on this year have excited me and fired up my passion for my work. Others…not so much. When you are your own boss, setting your own hours and working from home, often alone, it can be really hard to stay motivated to keep working on something that you are not passionate about. Hopefully you have a decent work ethic and the desire to do a good job at whatever you do. If so you will get the job done, but it can be a hard slog. Do not underestimate this. Ideally you should choose your freelance projects carefully, which is why it helps to have enough financial stability when you start out to be able to pick and choose wisely.

Still interested in freelancing? I found the following articles extremely helpful:

https://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2014/jan/15/career-tips-freelance-museum-heritage

https://rosiefuller.wordpress.com/freelance-faq/

http://www.gem.org.uk/fnet/gem_startingout_(2009).pdf

The Museum Freelance Network on LinkedIn and Twitter is a good place to chat to other freelancers. I attended their first conference in March 2017, with help from the South East Museum Development Programme, and wrote about my experience at the time. Their next event Resilient Freelancing is on 12th March 2018.