Gaining Steam in 2018: My Leap to a Freelance Museum Career

The week of the Trump election in 2016 was my first week as an independent consultant. What a week.

I was glued to the news with no steady job. I had one client - the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History - a pregnant wife, and a pretty uncertain future. But it’s really never a great time to take a big leap, is it? We did the math and figured we could still eek by, eating ramen noodles, even if I didn’t make a penny. That was somewhat comforting. But still a huge risk for our family.

I spent the first several months on marketing - a logo (DesignCrowd), website (Squarespace), business cards (moo), getting serious about social media, reaching out to friends and colleagues, and writing conference proposals. I redesigned my corner of the basement to look colorful and dynamic to make my brain feel alive when I’m working.

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Someone once said to me, “You’ll never be a thought leader if you don’t tell people your thoughts.” So I worked on writing a monthly blog post. Blog posts seemed to really pay off in terms of visibility. They also let clients know what kind of person they were hiring. I was starting to get calls from folks I didn’t know who saw a blog post and wanted me to speak or do a workshop on that topic.

Since I started writing my blog, this is by far the most popular post, getting over 10,000 page views since it was posted in March 2017:
7 Reasons Museums Should Share More Experiences, Less Information
My least popular post was one that a bit more “how to” or pragmatic in tone, and with a more specific audience (900 page views):
Museum with a Single Focus: How to Attract the Non-Enthusiast

Eventually, as I put more of “me” out there, I got more clients. The move to freelance seemed more viable.

The first year I gained a few more clients and *almost* made as much money as I did from my steady museum job (not that hard when you are paid peanuts). I was encouraged but still wondering if my momentum was just luck or if I could really carve out a sustainable career on my own.

I’m happy to report that this year was better than the last. (Small claps 👏since I don’t want to jinx it).
Shout out to these fabulous 2018 clients that not only kept me busy, but pushed my thinking forward.

❤️Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian
❤️Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History
❤️First Amendment Museum at Gannett House
❤️Greater Hudson Heritage Network
❤️George Washington's Mount Vernon
❤️The International Spy Museum
❤️Washington State Historical Society
❤️Wisconsin Historical Society
❤️Historic Londontown and Gardens
❤️Arts on the Block

I may not work in a physical museum anymore, but I still have a wicked craft closet. So I whipped out my card stock and popsicle sticks. I got all lo-fi-analog-old-school and whipped up this thank you video for everyone who has supported this journey. If you’re reading this, you’re one of them! (Sound on for best vibes 🎵)

Another huge happening in 2018 was a chance-in-a-lifetime trip to India to meet the Dalai Lama and to participate in a summit, with other 30 other amazing people, on “Fostering Universal Ethics and Compassion Through Museums.”
I’ve been doing a lot of processing about this trip and I’m revving up to write down some thoughts. In the meantime, enjoy this photo of His Holiness (center with baseball cap that someone in our group gifted him) and me on the far right, back row. Proof that this actually happened to a regular person like me!

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What are my career goals for 2019? Of course I want this freelance momentum to continue. Financial sustainability is important - especially when you have a new mouth to feed. New mouth pictured here. ➡

But more than that, I’d like to get my hands on some new innovative projects. I’m happiest when I’m creating experiences - ways for people to engage with content in surprising and ways.

Helping museums think strategically and to keep visitors as the center focus is also a sweet spot for me. I love that it’s my job to keep an eye on our field at the 30,000 foot level. This is where my brain was always focused as an embedded museum professional but I rarely had time to get out there and survey the landscape. Now, when I talk with museums looking to make changes, I can offer some credible perspective on where we seem to be headed and challenge them to think about what’s next in our field.

And in the next year, look for more thoughts from me on what the Dalai Lama calls “secular ethics” and fostering compassion. My wish is to see museums looking past mere content learning towards a model where specific content is used for greater purposes - to improve our well-being and connection with fellow humans. Yep, I’m getting all warm and fuzzy. And I’m hoping you will too.

Happy New Year everyone!

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