The pandemic has compounded the challenges facing museum freelancers

We’re asking sector organisations to play a meaningful role in driving change
Freelance Workforce
Christina Lister and Marge Ainsley
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Marge Ainsley (L) and Christina Lister are the directors of Museum Freelance
Marge Ainsley (L) and Christina Lister are the directors of Museum Freelance

Freelancing can be precarious at the best of times, but this year’s pandemic and Black Lives Matters movement have really exposed this and laid bare how unequitable it can be.

While the Character Matters report in 2016 stated that 4.8% of the museum workforce was freelance, this figure is now likely to be higher, as opportunities are increasingly shifting to part-time and short-term project posts and freelancing contracts.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the lack of job security and stable, regular income for freelancers. Not everyone can ride it out. While the Government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) has provided relief for many, there have been glaring cracks in the scheme that many others fell into.

In the summer Museum Freelance secured a £7,500 grant for a Covid-19 Hardship Fund for freelancers in need of emergency support, which was distributed to 15 people by the Museums Association.

Applications illustrated the detrimental impact the pandemic has had on the income and wellbeing of the self-employed. Work has dried up and it is unclear when more sustainable and viable levels will return. We know that some freelancers have already started working or looking for work in other sectors as a result.

In October, we released the findings of our survey into freelancers and freelancing in the museums/heritage sector, which we undertook to plug a gap in robust data on the self-employed museum workforce.

The survey found that whilst most respondents enjoy freelancing, there are a range of concerns affecting their wellbeing and their ability to earn a living. As well as critical issues of poor rates of pay, procurement and contracts, there are also challenges around not feeling valued, imposter syndrome and a lack of access to opportunities.

This has been a year of enormous change and turbulence. While freelancers are often incredibly creative, adaptable and entrepreneurial, this is not automatically enough to overcome the challenges brought about by the pandemic.

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With a growing proportion of the museum workforce choosing to – or being forced to – turn to freelancing, it is now more important than ever that the sector tackles the issues identified in the survey and compounded by 2020’s events.

Museum Freelance has developed recommendations which will benefit freelancers, their clients and the sector as a whole. These include providing affordable opportunities open to freelancers; and developing and implementing best practice procurement processes and guidance on contractual issues.

We have also identified a range of next steps for Museum Freelance: creating a freelance panel to represent a wider range of perspectives and steer our activity; more lobbying to drive change; and seeking funding to deliver on our ambitious plans.

Our survey has shown there is still an enormous amount of work to be done to enable freelancing to be a financially viable, fulfilling and sustainable career choice for a broader range of people. With the sector’s commitments to diversity, we invite sector organisations to play a meaningful role in driving change in this area.

Ultimately, we hope the survey findings will be a catalyst for positive change in the sector. We urge all freelancers, the freelance-curious and organisations that commission freelancers to read the survey report and reflect on what part they can play in making progress.

The survey is available at www.museumfreelance.org.

Christina Lister and Marge Ainsley, directors, Museum Freelance

Museum Freelance champions and supports freelancers working with museums, galleries, heritage sites, libraries and archives. We lobby on behalf of freelancers, provide virtual and in-person networking opportunities and run training. We carry out the vast majority of our work in a voluntary capacity.

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