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!

Example: tailoring digital content to users

I really liked this from The Drum – after signing up (free of charge) to get to their website content, I was given three options of what they can do for me:

The design is clean, with clear calls to action.

It’s a simple concept, easy for a user to do and feel like it’s something that benefits them – information tailored to what they are most interested in.

And of course for the organisation an opportunity to flag some of their products and services and get a useful layer of user insight about each of their preferences.

The Drum is a global media platform and the biggest marketing website in Europe so you’d expect them to get it right. But this approach could easily be scaled up and down and be transferred to cultural organisations’ websites and e-newsletters to establish what their users and audiences are most interested in e.g. visiting, buying a ticket, finding out about events, doing some research, being inspired and then curating relevant content to them as a result. No doubt some of the bigger cultural organisations already do this for e-newsletter sign-ups, but I’ve not seen it frequently and certainly not on their websites. Would love to see examples if anyone has any case studies?

End of week testimonial

On Wednesday I delivered the findings of a substantial piece of audience consultation on behalf of the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library in Norwich. The project team and trustees were so receptive to the findings – they listened, they got it, they’re excited about the possibilities and ready for the challenge.

It was so encouraging to see, as audience development and consultation is new to the organisation. It was a meaningful project and one I feel privileged to have contributed to. I was delighted to receive this note from the client today:

“Congratulations and a huge thank you from of all of the Governors and staff for a very thorough, well planned and executed piece of work.  It will not only inform and underpin the immediate project but, most importantly, the development of the offer as the Library moves forward. […] Thank you once again for all of your work and skill in bringing together such a helpful piece of work.”

Richard Hill, project manager, The 2nd Air Division Memorial Library

About the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library

The Memorial Library is a really special and unique place. It was set up to honour the nearly 7,000 Americans in the Second Air Division who lost their lives during the Second World War in bombing campaigns against Nazi Germany from their Norfolk and Suffolk bases.

It is intended to be a living memorial, to not only be a tribute to those Americans who were killed, but also to act as an educational and friendship bridge between the UK and USA.

Audience consultation project for the Memorial Library

However the organisation recognised the need to increase and broaden its visitor base. I was commissioned to undertake a programme of front-end user, non-user and stakeholder consultation to help the Trust to understand:

  • the Library’s current user profile
  • barriers to engagement from non-users
  • what both sets of audiences would like to see from a redeveloped Memorial Library.

The work involved a feedback station in the Library, a series of focus groups, telephone interviews with stakeholders, an online survey, face-to-face interviews with users of the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library (the Memorial Library is housed within it) and two public consultation events.

Tips on running staff reflection workshops

One of my pet bug-bears is project evaluation for the sake of it, as a tickbox exercise.

Done well, there’s so much value that can be mined at the end of projects. And yet I see some organisations just evaluating on the basis of funders’ requirements, with no thought to how they can genuinely learn from the experience in a practical way going forward.

Rather than just focussing on ‘what we’ve done’, I champion an approach that identifies lessons learned and implications for future projects. I want to ensure that good practice is recognised and embedded in organisations, and we avoid duplicating mistakes.

Benefits of a staff reflection workshop:

A staff reflection workshop can be a really useful way of capturing transferable lessons. Done well it can:

  • Be a safe space and valued opportunity for participants to have their voices heard
  • Help to deepen understanding, collaborative working and relationships amongst the participants
  • Enable team members to bounce ideas off each other
  • Uncover a wealth of insights and ideas
  • Be the basis for a best practice guide for future projects
  • Give participants a sense of buy-in and ownership of the best practice guidance
  • Be a method to help team members reach consensus
  • Act as a type of closure on a project for participants
  • Be fun and engaging!

But a session needs careful preparation and facilitation so that it remains constructive and productive and doesn’t degenerate into a whinge-fest, go off tangent for a long period of time or is dominated by a minority.

I have organised and facilitated reflection workshops for a range of different organisations, where participants have comprised members of different internal departments, teams and different organisations.

Here are my top tips for running a constructive team reflection session:

1. Have a clear purpose and scope

Be clear on the purpose of the session and what outputs and outcomes you want. Communicate this to all participants to ensure everyone takes part from the same starting point and to manage expectations. Everyone should know what the session seeks to do, what it’s not going to cover and what their role will be.

2. Participants

Encourage all the key project contributors to take part so that the session reflects a broad range of perspectives. People are busy and booked up, so plan ahead and explain the value in the session and how the outcomes will be used.

Be mindful of any hierarchy in your organisation or clashing personalities that may limit someone’s ability or confidence in speaking and sharing their thoughts. Seating arrangements could help with this, as could the choice and ordering of exercises (e.g. start with something that involves smaller group discussions and/or writing ideas on cards or Post-It Notes.

3. Structure

The structure will depend on many factors including the session purpose and length, and the number of participants. Aim for a balance so that you have time to cover the key ground but still allow enough flexibility and slack for discussions and contributions that are relevant but perhaps not expected.

People are more likely to speak up once they’ve already spoken, but for some people the first time can be difficult. So see if you can start with a simple round-the-table introduction or ice-breaker that’s appropriate for your group. For example:

  • everyone introduces themselves if they don’t already know everyone in the room
  • ask a short question about the project like ‘What was your role in the project?’ or ‘What is your favourite memory of the project?’
  • or ask something unrelated to the project (as long as it’s something everyone can answer).

A ‘car park’ is a good idea to set up. It captures any points participants raise that aren’t directly relevant to the discussions at that point in time and therefore risk being a tangent. You want to ensure that the discussion remains focussed, but you don’t want to lose the point raised or the motivation of the person who raised it. You can therefore suggest it’s added to a sheet called ‘car park’ where you ‘park’ ideas that you can come back to later on. Then make sure you do return to those ideas later on…

4. Tone

Set the tone of the session. Make it clear that it’s not about apportioning blame or pointing the finger at anyone. It’s not about dwelling on mistakes and issues, but rather identifying how the team can learn constructively from the project and bring this forward in the future. It’s also a useful environment for sharing perspectives, findings and ideas as not everyone experiences a project in the same way.

5. Logistics

Space and timing are important. If a project has been particularly difficult or political, a new and neutral venue can be useful. 2-3 hours is a good amount of time (with a comfort break) and if you need more time, a lunchbreak which allows people to get some fresh air and move around a bit can help provide a boost if attention and energy is flagging. Drinks and snacks are always appreciated!

How seating is arranged will depend on numbers, room size and the structure of the session. Sitting in a U-shape, boardroom style or smaller cabaret-style tables tends to be more conducive to working co-operatively compared to theatre or classroom style.

6. Timing

If a session is done immediately after an event or straight after a big project deadline, it can be harder for participants to think about the bigger picture as they are still so entrenched in the nitty gritty of the project. But if you leave it too long (several months), you may find that some participants can’t recall the detail and some may already have moved on (both mentally and in their roles) – so find a balance between the two.

7. Ground rules

Agree a set of ground rules before you start, for example:

  • Respect each other’s points of view
  • One person to speak at a time
  • There are no right or wrong answers, you are looking for people’s perspectives
  • Having a ‘car park’.

8. Format and exercise ideas

The format of the session needs to be tailored to the session’s purpose. I tend to base sessions around the Institute of Cultural Affairs’ Focussed Conversation Method and Consensus Workshop Method.

For staff reflection workshops I’ve drilled it down into 3 ‘whats’:

  • Identifying WHAT happened in a project
  • Agreeing the implications of this – the SO WHAT
  • Then coming up with answers to WHAT NEXT? How can we apply these findings and implications in future?

For example, participants identify strengths and challenges of a project, then come up with what this means – what are the implications of these points and how can participants build on the strengths and mitigate against the challenges happening again in the future? I often start participants in smaller groups and end with a discussion as a whole group.

Space permitting, I love using a ‘Sticky Wall’ because:

  • it captures everyone’s ideas visibly on the wall so you can get the whole picture as the discussions play out
  • you can move cards around and group them once they are up
  • participants can put up cards with their ideas themselves, which gets them moving and people find fun!
A ‘Sticky Wall’ in action

9. Facilitation

An impartial and experienced facilitator will develop the workshop itself, act as an unbiased guide, pace the session appropriately and navigate any issues. Participants will also know they don’t have any biases or agenda. Get in touch if you’re interested in finding out more or would like to discuss a staff reflection project.

However if your budget doesn’t stretch to professional facilitation then make sure you agree on the structure, ground rules and timings. Appoint someone to act as a facilitator, perhaps someone from another department or partner organisation who doesn’t have such a vested interest in the session.

I’d love to hear other tips for similar sessions – what works for you?

If you’re interested in finding out more about the facilitation tools I mentioned, I highly recommend the Institute of Cultural Affairs’ Group Facilitation Methods course as a starter. They have rates for charities and freelancers and you can buy a Sticky Wall from them too.

Marketing strategy work with Jane Austen’s House Museum

I’m really excited to start work with Jane Austen’s House Museum in Hampshire on a marketing strategy project. It’s part of a broader range of work funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Resilient Heritage grant, aimed at improving the resilience of the museum by auditing and improving several key areas of operations, one of which is marketing. The project kick-off also coincides beautifully with my current bookclub read which is Persuasion by Jane Austen!

Agents of Change: our third annual Museum Freelance conference

It’s just six weeks to go until the third annual conference organised by freelancers (Marge Ainsley and me), for freelancers.

Museum Freelance conference promotional image

New for this year is a Manchester location, and a series of fringe and social events wrapping around the conference day itself.

But the purpose of the event remains the same. Firstly it’s an opportunity for freelancers working in the cultural sector (and those thinking about it) to:

  • get together and get to know each other;
  • share stories, tips and issues with each other in a safe and friendly space;
  • learn from a range of interesting and inspiring speakers;
  • spend time out of the office reflecting on and developing their business at an affordable event.

And secondly there are broader benefits:

  • the event raises the profile of freelancers as a valuable and critical part of the workforce in the cultural sector;
  • the event develops the skills and confidence of freelancers and consultants, who can thereby contribute more effectively to the sector;
  • it’s an opportunity for the Museum Freelance team to better get to know our community and thereby cater more to their needs in the future.

Some of the feedback from last year’s event included:

“I thought this was the most useful conference I’ve ever attended. Everything was directly relevant to me, the speakers were inspirational and I got to meet great people. I look forward to coming again next year.”

“Brilliantly well organised. Great to meet new people. Valuable resource for the freelance community.”

“It was really enjoyable, and the delegates were really nice! It was lovely to feel part of a ‘team’!”

“Great to have a safe space to talk about issues that everyone understands without worrying what impression it gives to a potential client!”

50 freelancers have already booked on and we look forward to welcoming them and some more to the event in March. Hope to see you there? Book now to join us.

Lessons on content marketing

Yesterday I read an interesting article on Medium about how a change in editorial strategy — from blogging to magazine-style storytelling — has enabled Wellcome Collection to reach and engage more people. The content sits under the heading of ‘Stories‘ on their website.

The piece was written by Jennifer Staves, digital content manager at Wellcome Collection, and I spotted it thanks to a share on Twitter by Tom Scott, head of digital there.

I mainly work with small and medium-sized cultural organisations, but even if organisations don’t have a team, expertise or budget that are comparable to Wellcome Collection, I think there are some key lessons in the article that are universal.

I’ve put together five transferable tips which I share when delivering training on content marketing and that the piece on Wellcome Collection highlights:

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What makes a good audience research brief?

This will be one of the questions discussed at an event organised by the Visitor Studies Group (VSG) later this month.

It’s aimed at both in-house staff and external freelancers and agencies and aims to help bridge the gap in understanding between what organisations want and need from research projects, and how independent researchers and evaluators understand organisations’ needs and respond to research briefs appropriately.

The event includes a panel discussion (which I’m a part of), followed by a practical workshop for all attendees and will cover:

  • Writing and responding to excellent research briefs – the need to be clear, concise and realistic
  • Appropriate costs for audience research – deciding budget and understanding day rates
  • Procurement process – scoring criteria, whether to interview and appointing
  • Stakeholder needs – commissioning research that meets the needs of both internal stakeholders and external stakeholders such as funders.

I’ll be there to talk both about my own experiences and reflections and also representing the wider Museum Freelance Network community which I co-run to ensure freelancers’ voices are heard in the debates. The event – Commissioning Audience Research – takes place on Wednesday 23 January 2019, 3-5.30pm at the Dana Research Centre and Library, Science Museum, 165 Queen’s Gate, Kensington, London, SW7 5HD. Tickets are free to VSG members, £30 non-members and £20 for non-member freelancers and students. Hope to see you there!

User and non-user consultation for The Second Air Division Memorial Library

I’m just starting to work on a really interesting project for The Second Air Division Memorial Library based in The Forum in Norwich.

The Memorial Library was set up to honour the nearly 7,000 young Americans in the Second Air Division who lost their lives during the Second World War in bombing campaigns against Nazi Germany from their Norfolk and Suffolk bases.

It is intended to be a living memorial, to not only be a tribute to those Americans who were killed, but also to act as an educational and friendship bridge between the UK and USA.

The project involves a programme of front-end user and non-user consultation to help the Second Air Division Memorial Trust to understand the Library’s current user profile, barriers to engagement from non-users and what both sets of people would like to see from a redeveloped Memorial Library.

My takeaways from the SHARE Museums East conference

Last week I went to SHARE Museums East’s annual conference held at the stunning Firstsite gallery in Colchester, aimed at people working in and with museums in the East of England. The theme was ‘Embrace, Empower, Employ’.

I was there as a delegate and also as a representative of the Museum Freelance Network, presenting a break-out session on Working with Freelancers aimed at museums’ representatives and hosting a Museum Freelance stand with fellow consultant Claire Adler in the breaks. It’s great that SHARE recognises the importance of freelancers and consultants to our sector and provided a platform for us to develop relationships between the network and museums in the region.

As ever with cultural sector conferences, delegates’ and speakers’ passion, dedication and quest for learning and sharing really came across during the day.

Here are my four main takeaways from the day:

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