How is it nearly April already? 'April is the cruellest month', according to TS Eliot, but I love this season: my daffodils are flourishing, the celandines are out in the woods near my house and it won't be long until the bluebells take over. Spring brings a sense of hope, and it also brings the financial year end which tends to mean a turnover of project work for consultants (and a flurry of invoicing, which is always a good thing after the sting of the January tax bill).
I’ve finished a couple of long term projects over the past few months which means I’ve been doing some reflection on what went well, what could have been better and what I’ve learned. The main one was a big piece of research for Manchester Art Gallery investigating their constituent working practices through an evaluation of two recent gallery redisplays, Uncertain Futures and Climate Justice. ‘Constituent working’ is the term we used to describe the gallery's work with people and organisations from Manchester’s diverse communities to bring different perspectives, enable new interpretations of the collections and co-create displays.
This was sensitive work that involved navigating questions of power, accountability, responsibility and authority in the context of a local authority museum service that is striving to be useful to its community. It was an evaluation project but was really about organisational development given that it was focused on working practices as well as outcomes. I have really enjoyed the strategic aspect of this research and appreciated the team's willingness to be honest about the challenges of working in this way. The research took a lot longer than I had anticipated, partly because of the ongoing practical challenges in my own life that impact on my time but also because sensitive issues take time to unpick. I've learned that I need to recognise the amount of thought and reflection that work like this needs and to factor it into my planning. I'm reasonably good now at estimating the amount of time I'll need to do gallery research or write a report, but don't always recognise thinking time in the same way.
Working on an evaluation in which I met and interviewed a wide range of people also reinforced the power of listening. Being a better listener is something I’ve been working on quietly over the past year or so and it was gratifying to see it recognised in feedback from one of the gallery's senior team: “You listen well and remember what people have said, you bring a sense of curiosity with the world to your work, you pay attention to what's going on around you and don't second guess people… You are good at reading the room and you work hard to understand and accept all points of view.” Curiosity and fairness are two of my core values so to have them recognised in client feedback means a lot.
Feedback is something freelancers crave and often find hard to come by, so I was really happy this week to get an email from Brooklands Museum, who I worked with in 2021, sharing the news that their learning programme has been shortlisted for Learning Programme of the Year in the Museum and Heritage Awards. I wrote a new learning strategy for Brooklands that has formed the basis of the work they've done over the past 18 months which has enabled them to make the shortlist for the awards. This is brilliant news but the thing that makes me most happy is that the museum team took the time to let me know and to say thank you. So often as a consultant you do big pieces of strategy work or funding bids but don't get to find out how things are going which means you often don't recognise the value of your work. So this is a plea, if you work with consultants in this capacity, to share the outcomes of their work as it's really appreciated - and a reminder to myself, if it doesn't happen, to check in with people after projects have finished and ask how they're getting on and what difference my work is making.
Life outside of work continues to be difficult in many ways - we've finally had my daughter's autism diagnosis confirmed after two years on the waiting list, so the next challenge is to get through the EHCP process to try to get her the right support in school. And my mum's made the decision to move into a care home so I face the daunting prospect over the next few months of clearing the house she's lived in for over 50 years and then selling it to pay for her care. This is not the place for a rant about social care services in the UK but let's just say that, based on my extensive recent experience, both CAMHS and the adult social care system are barely fit for purpose and the need to fight for basic support makes already stressful situations exponentially worse. So in the interests of work/life balance I'm heading off for a long weekend in Lisbon soon with friends. There is never a good time to be away when you're self-employed but holidays and short breaks are necessary to stay sane which ultimately benefits the business as it enables you to do better work. And given that 'Look after yourself' was my number one top tip in my recent post about how to freelance through difficult times, I had better take my own advice!