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How to become a (successful) Freelancer

Posted on 25 August 2015


This post is a version of a talk I gave to heritage students at Leeds University a couple of months ago. I posted it at the time but it mysteriously disappeared, so here it is again! 

The museum workplace is changing. In my 20 years in the profession there has been a clear shift away from permanent jobs to a lot more fixed term or temporary roles, freelance working and the dreaded zero hours contracts. It’s very likely that anyone starting out now will be freelance at some point, either through choice like me – I decided to go freelance 11 years ago because I wanted to follow my own interests and have more control over my working life – or as a stopgap in between jobs. It’s quite simple to become freelance. All you need to do is register with HMRC and complete an annual tax return. Being a successful freelancer is another matter. I won’t claim to be an expert on the subject but I have been around a while and I’m going to share with you some of the things I’ve learned.


1. Get the legal and business details sorted out

The website has everything you need to know about setting up as a freelancer. It covers your tax and NI responsibilities and the various options, such as working as a sole trader or establishing a limited company. You also need to make sure you have the right insurances – public liability as a bare minimum; professional indemnity if you are giving organisations advice on how to spend their money. Have a designated work space – it doesn’t matter whether it’s at your home, a rented office or a hot desking setup, though your kitchen table is possibly not ideal. You need to be able to concentrate without distractions. Get an accountant – they will save you time, hassle and money – and a website with your contact details so people can find you easily. The best tip I was given when I started out was to manage your cashflow. A lot of small businesses fail not because they’re not making enough money, but because their income and outgoings don’t match up. If you’re not managing your cashflow you’re not managing your business and you do need to actively manage your business if you want it to thrive. Put a third of what you’re paid in a savings account to cover your tax bill, and always chase late payers. The payontime website is great for advice on how to handle those organisations who don't pay their bills - and I don't know any freelancers who haven't encountered the problem of late payment at some point.



2. Clarify what you’re going to offer, and who for

Work out what your skills are, what it is you really want to do with your time, and who might pay you to do it. Refine it down into a quick 30-second summary of what you offer. This is sometimes called the ‘elevator pitch’- I’m not a fan of that term, but basically, how would you summarise what you do to someone you’d just met in a lift before they got out? This might vary depending on the audience: for example, some days I help museums create excellent services for audiences through research and consultation, or I might develop imaginative collections-based learning resources that teachers get excited about using, or I might create evidence based strategic plans that help museums win funding. How specialist or general your offer is will be up to you, but whatever it is, make sure you can summarise it quickly if you’re asked.


3. Network

I have said this before but it is really important, especially when you're starting out. You don't necessarily have to get out and about, although it's good to do so occasionally. In my view a Twitter presence is essential if you're self employed, as is a profile on LinkedIn. Find out about networks local to you – the regional Federations offer good affordable networking events, as does GEM in the regions, and sometimes the Museums Association.


4. Collaborate

Consultancy can be a solitary game. It's important to work with other people once in a while and it means that you can offer the client a broader, more diverse range of experience and skills. I have the most fun, and do the most interesting work, when I get together with other people to work on contracts that none of us could have done alone.


5. Know your worth

Pricing is one of the most difficult aspects of being freelance. There are a lot of variables that feed into how you price your work, or more commonly your time – how specialist your particular skill set and knowledge base is; the scale and complexity of the contract; what the client can afford, and sometimes the client’s misconception about how it works being freelance. Don’t sell yourself short. If the rate you offer is too high you can always bring it down, but a client is never, ever going to say ‘how about we add £50 to your day rate?’. Don’t be afraid to walk away from a contract that is offering too little. Pricing low to get work might be OK in the short term but you will soon find you’re stuck in a cycle of low rates and overwork. Don’t be tempted to undercut the rates that other people are charging for similar work – in a race to the bottom, nobody wins.


6. Know what you cost

The other aspect of pricing your time is know how much it costs for you to do what you do – your overheads. I estimate that it costs me about £50 a day just to sit at my desk, irrespective of whether I do any paid work. Everyone’s costs differ but there are a number of basic elements you need to take into account:

• Utilities – heat, light, electricity, phone, broadband, mobile contract etc.

• Professional fees – accountancy, insurances, legal advice if you need it.

• Equipment – computer hardware and software. 

• Time spent on essential tasks needed to run your business – invoicing, managing your finances, pitching for work and going for interviews, networking, training and professional development, conferences, and so on.

• Mileage and other travel costs not covered by specific contracts.

• Holidays and time off sick. The first should happen, the second definitely will at some point! Work out your annual overheads and divide that figure by the number of days you expect to work, taking into account the holidays and other unpaid time commitments I outlined above. Don’t expect to do five paid days of work a week unless you want to be exhausted!


7. Invest in yourself

This doesn’t always mean money but it does mean time. It makes me cross when I hear consultants and freelancers complain that they can't afford to go to conferences, or training days, or events. Personally, I can't afford not to. I owe it to myself and my clients to keep my professional knowledge and awareness up to date and while a certain amount of that can be done online, there's no substitute for getting out of the office from time to time.


8. Look after your reputation

There is a saying that if people are happy with your work they’ll tell you, but if they’re not happy they will tell everybody. I think there’s an element of truth in that. In freelancing track record is really important and you’re only as good as people say you are. My main focus is making sure the client is happy with the work I do. Getting feedback can be really difficult – particularly negative feedback, because it’s a difficult thing to give and people don’t like doing it – but it’s really important to keep checking back with the person employing you to make sure you’re on the right track. Don’t assume that no news is good news or that the way you worked on your last project will suit the current organisation you’re working with. Always ask.


Freelance work isn’t for everyone. It requires a lot of self-motivation, initiative and energy and you need to think very laterally about how your skills and experience can apply to someone else’s business. There are pitfalls – it can be easy to fall into the trap of chasing contracts rather than doing work you really enjoy and there is a ‘feast or famine’ aspect to self employment that isn’t unique to museums. However, if it suits you, it can be a great way of getting to work on some really interesting projects with a diverse range of organisations and taking control of your working life.


Isn't freelance work really unstable? How reliable is it?

When you leave a job to go freelance you do give up the security of a regular income and you do have to plan for that. The cashflow issue I mentioned earlier is really important to ensure you can cover your outgoings and I would advise having a savings fund to cover three months of living expenses (or whatever you're comfortable with) in case you have a lean period or one of the aforementioned late payers. You constantly need to be scanning for opportunities and it's one of the time management challenges you experience as a freelancer that while you're busy on client projects you also need to have an eye out for new opportunities and keep pitching for work. It's a cruel irony that all the really interesting contracts come up at once, generally when you can't fit any more work in! Also be aware of the cyclical nature of freelance work. I find August and December are quiet but the financial year end is a real 'silly season' as people try to use their budgets before the end of March. Much of it comes down to temperament. I've never been a fan of routine and predictability - daily routines are fine but I've never enjoyed knowing exactly what I would be doing 12 months from now. If you prefer more predictability and certainty in your working life then being freelance might not be for you.


Would you advise going freelance straight away or is it better to have a job first?

I do know some brilliant people who have been freelance their whole working lives and never had a 'real' job. It can definitely be done. I had several museum jobs before I went freelance and I do think there are advantages to that. You get a good idea of what it's like to work in a museum, what they are like as work places, the kind of pressures that people who work in museums are under, and an insight into different areas of work other than the one you might want to specialise in (for example, I don't now do much curatorial work but in my first job at National Museums Liverpool I did quite a lot and that experience has been invaluable). You also get the opportunity to establish a reputation and track record and build those all-important networks - and make the best use possible of your organisation's training budget (assuming it has one!) If you're currently studying and think you might want to work freelance I'd suggest looking for jobs that will help you get the skills and experience you're going to need for your freelance career. Experience is important and there is simply no shortcut to it. You could also combine working part time with freelancing to see if it's for you.

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Should museums charge?

Should museums charge for admission? It's a perennial question that rears its ugly head every now and then, often sending the museum sector into a defensive tailspin. Free entry to national museums has been described as 'the sacred cow of the museum world' and it's never a debate the sector welcomes. Today I talked to Roberto Perrone on BBC Three Counties Radio about this very issue: the interview is here at 1 hour 24 minutes in if you want to listen again. (I've no idea why they asked me rather than someone closer to home but I'm grateful for the opportunity, now I've got over the 'does my voice really sound like that?' weirdness!) 


The debate has come around now due to a number of factors, the main one being the government's decision to ask all its departments, including DCMS which funds national museums, to model budget cuts of 40% and 25%. York Museums Trust's decision to begin charging admission to the revamped York Art Gallery has also made the news (reported on by the York Press and the BBC). The Guardian published an article today by its art critic Jonathan James who argues that museums should charge admission because 'people would pay' and suggests that free entry is the difference that means museums are 'no longer dowdy', combining classic London-centric middle-class entitlement with a wilful disregard for what has really made the difference to museums in the last few decades (20 years of Heritage Lottery-funded investment being the main thing). 


A lot of museums are not free anyway.  Museums in the independent sector that are don't receive any public funding rely on admission charges as their main source of income. Many museums run by local authorities will also charge admission, even if only a nominal amount. Even the free national museums charge sometimes eye-watering sums to visit their temporary exhibitions. The impression that 'all museums are free' is down to the policy, sustained by successive governments since 2001, of giving national museums grant-in-aid on condition that they offer free access to visitors, reported on by a mainly London-centred media. A debate that concentrates on the London-based national museums rather than the thousands of museums across the country run by local authorities, trusts, independent charities or volunteers misses the complexity of the issue. 


It could be argued - and I have some sympathy with this view - that free admission to national museums advantages Londoners and tourists and does little for the rest of the country. Most people don't have a national museum on their doorstep. I'm lucky in Yorkshire in that we have four excellent ones (the National Media Museum, National Railway Museum and National Coal Mining Museum for England, all part of the Science Museum group, as well as the Royal Armouries), but if I want to see the national collections at the British Museum, or the Science Museum or V&A, it will cost getting on for £100 in rail fares just to get to their front door. Most of the London nationals have regional partnerhship programmes that see them loan items elsewhere in the country but in my view these don't go far enough to promote access to their collections nationwide. However, charging for entry is unlikely to plug the funding gap that national museums would see in the event of a worst case scenario 40% budget cut from DCMS and the impact would arguably be felt most in cities like Bradford and Liverpool where the majority of visitors to the national museums are not the stereotypical wealthy tourists but come from within the local community. Most national museums have already seen their budgets cut to the bone and their response, in the form of cost-cutting exercises like the National Gallery's decision to outsource its front of house staff or the Science Museum accepting sponsorship from ethically dubious oil companies, are no less controversial than charging for admission. 


I also have some sympathy with the view expressed on Roberto's show that museums could charge overseas tourists - or for local authorities, people from outside the area - while maintaining free access for residents. However, that's not going to solve museums' problems either.  Charging tourists won't make any difference to those museums in areas that don't see high levels of tourism - my local museums in Calderdale or Kirklees, for example. I've heard rumours that the lovely Bagshaw Museum in Batley, the museum that inspired me as a child, and where I subsequently began my career as a volunteer back in 1996, is slated for closure in the next few years. Bringing in admission charges, whether for residents, tourists or both, isn't going to save it. 


Whatever your view on charging, it's evident that the tough funding climate for museums is only going to get worse and museums will start to bring in admission charges, cut their opening hours or close venues completely. If people want museums to be free, or to exist at all, they need to support them.  If you love museums and you want them to keep their doors open, check out the #ILoveMuseums campaign being run by the National Museum Directors' Conference and think about how you can help support the museums in your local community. If you work in the creative industries, Arts Council England's #culturematters toolkit could also help.  Write to your MP or your local councillor, use your local museums, make a donation if you can, and shout about how great museums are on social media. I shall be taking my daughter to Bagshaw Museum at the weekend and thinking about what difference I can make. 


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Museums Showoff

I wouldn't describe myself as a natural showoff. Like many museum people, I'm far happier organising in the wings than hogging the spotlight. But when I heard that the brilliant Museums Showoff event was coming to Yorkshire I had to think again. 


Museums Showoff is an open mic night for people who love museums. It's produced by museum academic Rachel Souhami and hosted by self-titled 'geek comedian' Steve Cross. The event happens bimonthly in London but sometimes the team ventures out of the capital and it was great to see them bring their brand of joyful museum-based anarchy to The Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield.


The format is simple: each 'act' has nine minutes to show off about anything they want, in any format they want, as long as it's related to museums.  The producers don't know any of the performers and don't see their acts in advance so nobody really knows what's going to happen. It makes for a brilliantly entertaining mix of the thoughtful, silly, reflective, profound and just plain rude, celebrating the diversity, quirkiness and wonder of museums. 


There were two highlights of last night's event for me. Angela Clare, collections manager at Calderdale Museums, gave a lively and impassioned talk about the stories behind the objects in museums, taking in swords, teddy bears, Henry VIII's armoured codpiece and why she gets paid to cry at work.  Local poet and Hepworth creative practitioner Matt Abbott headlined with an energetic mix of Wakefield-inspired poetry and musings on the relationship between heritage, identity and creativity. Matt's a co-founder of the Firm of Poets spoken word collective and heading off on a national tour with them this autumn. 


And me? I got over my stage fright and did a nine-minute presentation on 'How to Survive in the EU' with my friend and co-conspirator Tracy Craggs. Tracy and I have been working together on EU partnership projects for six years and shared some of our tips for international working together with some of our behind-the-scenes holiday snaps.  Here we are after our set - I think you can see the relief in our faces! The project we're currently working on is at, I've written about it here and the blog post that inspired our set is here.  



If you weren't at Museums Showoff, here's what else you missed: 

  • Imran Ali talked about Yarn, a new approach to open access community storytelling
  • Stephen Foster gave us a visitor's insight into what makes a good museum
  • Anisha Christison, Sally-Ann Burley and their colleagues from the National Coal Mining Museum gave a lovely presentation about their Wacky Wednesdays under-5s activities with a comic take on income generation and tenuous collection links
  • Emma Manners and her Fountains Abbey team acted out scenes from the Abbey's past featuring wounded monks, a lecherous monarch, urine tasting and a rapid succession of hats
  • Eleanor Clayton from the Hepworth Gallery gave an insight into how and why the gallery reconstructed Barbara Hepworth's 1968 exhibition designs, with musings on the beauty of breezeblocks
  • Stuart Tulloch, recently appointed CEO of The Art House in Wakefield, mused about the future including ideas for dog-racing and a pigeon loft in the gallery.


It's a shame the bar closed before the event ended - and I hate it when people come, do their bit then leave without supporting the other performers. But those are tiny gripes. I hope we don't have to wait too long before Museums Showoff makes a return visit to Yorkshire. I'll look forward to being in the audience next time! 


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