Reflections on Agents of Change – the Museum Freelance conference

A cancelled meeting means I’ve finally got the chance to finish my blog post on the third annual Museum Freelance conference held in Manchester in March. I organised it with Marge Ainsley as a conference dedicated to freelancers working with museums, heritage sites, libraries and archives.

My key takeaways were:

  • Be yourself and be authentic
  • It’s ok to make mistakes – learn from them
  • Question your purpose, what do you want to be, what do YOU want to do?
  • The importance of online networks – join them, get involved in them
  • Change can be positive
  • Being “unemployable” is great!

It’s about collaboration not competition

Marge and I kicked off the day with a few words about the Museum Freelance Network we run.

We shared the ethos of the network:

  • It’s about collaboration not competition
  • We encourage sharing not secrets
  • A collective voice is more powerful than an individual voice
  • Freelancers are essential part of the museums and heritage sector
  • Boost the health/well-being of freelancers to boost the health/well-being of the sector
  • Freelancers are running a business
  • Museum Freelance is a community.

We summarised key achievements in the past 12 months including:

  • Creating and running a beginner-level training course bespoke to the needs of freelancers in the museums sector
  • Becoming an IPSE Ambassador organisation
  • Launching an e-news and website
  • Producing a guide on working with freelancers
  • Challenging organisations offering diabolical fees/rates and/or advertising PAYE-in-disguise roles
  • Running Twitter chats on topics including GDPR + ‘green’ freelancing
  • Advising freelancers via calls, emails and tweets
  • Speaking up on behalf of freelancers at events, for example at the SHARE Museums East conference and Visitor Studies Group event
  • Representing Museum Freelance and organising ‘pop up’ networking at events like the Museums Association, Museum Ideas and Museum Next conferences
  • Organising Christmas socials.

And plans for the next 12 months (watch this space)!

We also set out how freelancers can contribute to the community:

  • Share jobs, issues, tips on Twitter and in the LinkedIn group
  • Use #MuseumFreelance and follow @MuseumFreelance on Twitter
  • Write a blog post for the Museum Freelance website
  • Take and share Museum Freelance business cards
  • Organise a freelance get-together at a sector event
  • Attend local meet-ups in your area
  • Get involved in our work: lobbying and advocacy, research, communications, social events, conference organisation
  • Tell us how we’re making a difference to you!

Being “unemployable”

Alistair Hudson, director of Manchester Art Gallery then opened the conference with his thoughts on living in times of change, new possibilities and what Museum 3.0 might be.

Business coach Caroline Newns, Caroline Newns Consulting, followed with some great advice on running a freelance business. She encouraged delegates to be more confident and assertive in their marketing and client relationships, and as a consultant herself said she loves being unemployable.

Jim Richardson, founder, MuseumNext gave a personal and moving presentation about “What the hell do you do in your business when everything in your life falls apart”. In Jim’s case it meant moving from running a thriving design agency to starting out on his own organising a global conference series. He has created “a lifestyle business” which allows him to see his family more and incorporate travel and opportunities abroad in his work. He recommended “work as a vehicle to make money and make you happy”.

“Project myself”

Simon Seligman, life coach and communications freelancer talked about conflicting voices inside us – when we are faced with too much “noise” (such as emails, CPD, client demands, other commitments) or no noise (and we worry about not having enough work).

I loved Simon’s suggestion to lavish 10% of your time and thought on “project myself” – treating yourself and your business as a client, in order to allow yourself time and permission to invest in yourself, your well-being, your business.

Simon also ran a 10 minute listening partnership where you’re liberated from the obligations of a conventional conversation so the “speaker can hear themselves”. Basically one person talked in a pair for five minutes whilst their partner listened, without asking questions, commenting or interrupting, before repeating the other way around. There was great feedback on this exercise from delegates, and many said this was a model they would be using in the future.

Amina Lone, co-director of The Social Action Research Foundation then finished off the morning session with an honest account of the ups and downs of a freelancing career and committing to an ideal.

“Don’t ask yourself what do I want to do today, but how do I want to be today?” 

After lunch four freelancers shared their varied takes on driving and dealing with change, hosted by heritage consultant Steve Slack.

  • Claire Turner, cultural consultant: My key takeaway from Claire was “Don’t ask yourself what do I want to do today, but how do I want to be today?”                                                                              
  • Adam Pearson, freelance research and evaluation consultant, gave a light-hearted presentation about his first few months as a freelancer                 
  • Dawn Varley, nfp strategist and do-er: Dawn asked delegates if they want to be a do-er or a facilitator/enabler with clients                                                                  
  • Anna Faherty, writer, trainer and consultant: Anna recommended freelancers keep asking “why” to delve into a client’s brief and really understand what’s going on and what support they need.           

Laura Weldon, creative director, StudioLWD then gave an introduction to branding and how this is more than “logo slapping”.

“Notice what makes your heart beat faster”

And in a very popular and rousing keynote session, Esme Ward, director of Manchester Museum, gave a future-facing and reflective provocation on the role of freelancers. Some notes I scribbled along that stand out are:

  • “get off your arse” – if you care about something, do something about it
  • “do less and value more”
  • “change done to you is grim, but change you have agency in or lead is energising”
  • “notice what makes your heart beat faster”
  • “freelancers know what good looks like”.

“It’s become an essential part of my year!”

We’re over the moon with the feedback which included:

  • “Thank you for a well-organised and well thought through event. It’s one of the best conferences I’ve been to and I was very impressed with how diverse but useful the content was.”
  • “I felt really fired up about work again, thank you!”
  • “I feel refreshed and ready to do some thinking about my business and my practice.” 
  • “It’s become an essential part of my year!”

Thank you to all of our contributors and delegates for making our third conference – and first outside London – such a success. We’re busy planning the next one…watch this space!

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