thoughts on my year as a freelancer

I’ve been working as a freelancer for a year now and thought I’d use this post to reflect on my experiences and the work I’ve been involved with before I embark on another year of potential insecurity and terror but, more optimistically, excitement, new people and learning lots of new things.

This time last year I had finished working as a trainee on the HLF and National Archives (TNA) Skills for the Future programme. It was weird for me to be called “trainee” as in many ways I felt it wasn’t an adequate description of myself but I definitely recognised that there were many things for me still to learn so I embraced the experience and it turned out to be a really good one. I ended up in that role after a long period of unpaid voluntary work that I undertook after moving to Birmingham in 2009. I had a PhD in History of Art and had done a good bit of work on exhibitions but a temporary contract I had finished at a particularly bad time for museums and archives, towards the end of 2009, and so I found myself in a new city with no work. I am extremely lucky in that I have a supportive partner who has a secure academic post but this was a very difficult time for me. It did however, give me the chance to volunteer for a few different institutions and meet some interesting people. And in that time I also became increasingly attached to Birmingham. It felt really intimidating at first and I found that it’s a city that makes you work hard to get to know it but I came to love it through its history and its people.

In early 2011 the opportunity to work at Birmingham Archives as part of the HLF/TNA programme came up and I was very fortunate to be offered a place on the scheme. I began there in April 2011 and my work was focused on an exhibition which opened the following year at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery called Children’s Lives.phpThumb.php

I loved working on this project. It made good use of my previous experience in exhibitions but in many ways I definitely was a trainee, learning about archive digitisation and education work. It was the outreach and engagement element of my work that I enjoyed the most – and the area I’m most keen to keep working in. Part of the exhibition was given over to Year 8 students from two local schools and I worked with those who had been designated curators (there were also archivists, recorders and publicists). It was really interesting and refreshing for me to work on an exhibition from their point of view – young people with no preconceptions about how it should look or what it should include. Working closely with 12-year-olds was often challenging and scary but overwhelmingly positive and it confirmed what I had thought for a while – that I’m more interested in this kind of work than the more traditional art historical research that my academic career could potentially lead me to.

So, at the end of last March I finished officially working at the Archives but I had made strong networks there and had been discussing the possibility of future projects so I knew it wouldn’t be the end of my relationship with that particular institution. In the meantime I had begun working with the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry as freelance curator for the exhibition Caught in the Crossfire: Artistic responses to conflict, peace and reconciliation.

Untitled, Peter Kennard

Untitled, Peter Kennard

This was a huge step up for me in terms of responsibility; while I had plenty of experience working on exhibitions, this gave me an opportunity to work with contemporary art and artists, and to make decisions and influence the progress of the exhibition. I relished being able to plan the narrative of the display, research and write the interpretation, and work closely with artists. However, the biggest satisfaction for me has been the reaction of visitors. It was clear that this was a very sensitive subject area and as such needed to be handled with extreme care. I think from the visitors’ comments that we have succeeded in that but it was a responsibility that I took extremely seriously and spent a long time thinking about during the planning and installation stages. My main aim with this project was to make people think and ask questions and I think we’ve done that.

During last summer discussions that I had with colleagues at the Archive began to turn into something more concrete. In 2010 the Archive had worked on a project in partnership with the Parliamentary Archives called The Right to Vote, which looked at the impact of Parliament on local communities. Some research was done on the suffrage campaign in Birmingham but it was felt that this was an area which could be expanded on and so I was given the opportunity to manage a project which would work with students from two local schools to examine the suffrage movement, exploring suffragist campaigning methods alongside the more well-known activities of the suffragettes. Female pupils from Years 8 and 10 from Small Heath and Kings Norton volunteered to work on the project after school and in their spare time. We successfully applied to the HLF for funding under the Young Roots strand which has enabled us to produce a film based around the archive material with the aim of making it relevant for young people today. The young people involved took a leading role in selecting areas for research and developing a script, as well as acting in the film. We have worked on Fight for the Right: the Birmingham Suffragettes since last autumn and you can read more about it on the blog The project is due for completion sometime in June. We will then focus on screenings in both schools and at a central location in Birmingham and we also hope to submit the film to youth film festivals.

Like Caught in the Crossfire, Fight for the Right was a step up for me. As project manager I’ve had to be responsible for every aspect of the project, from scheduling and planning archive workshops and managing the budget to helping make suffragette banners and ensuring everyone was fed during filming days! project manager NicolaIt’s been a fantastic experience and has given me a great grounding in working on educational outreach projects. I’ve learned a huge amount this year, I’ve done plenty of things wrong, I’m sure, and I can see many things that I would do differently, but my self-confidence (never the strongest) has gradually increased and I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with some amazing people and work on fantastic projects, ones that I hope will have impact or influence people in some way.

So what now? What do I want to do next? And what’s important in my work?

Well, I’m continuing discussions with colleagues at the Archive and hope to develop some more projects with them but I don’t have anything more concrete than that at the moment. This does scare me but this time last year I didn’t really know how the year would pan out and so it was a very nice surprise to end up working on such interesting and varied activities. Birmingham seems to be full of potential for working on these types of creative and heritage-focused projects and for working with young people and community groups. I think what’s important for me is that I find areas where I can utilise my experiences, knowledge and skills to engage people and encourage participation, whatever the type of work. I was lucky enough to spend the last 12 months doing that so hopefully the rest of this year and the ones after will bring more of the same.