Starting out as a freelancer in heritage learning

Owner GEM

Date published 1996. Revised: 2003, 2008, 2009 & 2018.

There are more freelancers in the heritage learning sector than ever before. Becoming a freelancer is an exciting and rewarding career move, but it is also a big challenge. Below is some information to help you when you’re starting out.

This information sheet has been produced to offer advice to consultants and freelance workers operating in the field of learning in museums. The advice can also be applied to freelancers working in galleries, archives, libraries, historic properties, and other heritage and culture organisations. This information sheet outlines issues which should be considered when becoming self-employed in this specialist area. Remember, you are crucial in bringing the required skills into museums!

Below are some checklists for you to keep in mind when starting out as a heritage learning freelancer.

Be prepared

  • Can you cope? Are you self-disciplined, determined, flexible, self-reliant, confident?
  • What will your support networks be?
  • Are you equipped to work from home? You will require office space and basic office equipment such as computer, telephone etc.

Keeping up to date and in touch

  • Join GEM and become part of the GEM Freelance Network to receive news and share support with fellow freelancers.
  • Join the GEM JISCMail to discuss the latest issues and ideas.
  • Keep CV and references up to date.
  • Maintain a portfolio and website to show to prospective clients.
  • Keep in touch with your profession and maintain professional development; subscribe to relevant publications and attend training courses and conferences. Such as the Museum Freelance Network on Twitter and LinkedIn, where you can network, take part in live chats, find jobs and relevant news and events.

Financial and legal matters

  • Register with the appropriate authorities, e.g. HMRC, Department of Work and Pensions.
  • Keep track of your income and expenditure. Will you keep your own accounts? Do you need to go on a training course? Do you need an accountant?
  • Investigate public liability insurance, professional indemnity, insuring your car for business use, personal pension scheme.
  • Consider finding a part-time job to ensure a regular income while you are establishing yourself.

Marketing and presentation

  • What is your market?
  • What is the competition?
  • How will you market your services, e.g. advertising, leaflet, networking, word of mouth, your own website, advertising on websites like GEM?
  • How will you build up your portfolio?
  • Have you sent your details to local museums and relevant organisations?
  • Do you have a professional image, e.g. website, headed stationery, business cards, references and testimonials?

The work

  • What do you want to do? What are your specialties and skills?
  • What is your Unique Selling Point?
  • Are you going to: offer direct teaching or training sessions? undertake special projects such as writing resources? conduct consultation and evaluation? write policies or plans? offer advice on a consultancy basis?
  • Have you planned your work schedule to avoid coinciding deadlines?
  • Have you allowed time for holidays?

Continuing professional development (CPD)

CPD can be challenging for freelancers, without an organisation to help with training fees or time away from work. But don’t underestimate how important CPD is to developing your skills, keeping you up to date with sector developments and policy and building your networks. Keeping up your CPD can only improve your chances when looking for work. All fees for training, conferences and courses should be tax deductible.

  • Have you investigated what CPD is available? Remember to use GEM’s training and events calendar to see a broad range of opportunities.
  • Have you considered training from outside of the sector, in business skills, fundraising, first aid, etc.?
  • Have you assessed your strengths and areas to improve using GEM’s core competencies?
  • Have you made a CPD action plan?


The following should be considered when deciding upon a fee:

  • Your rate per hour/working day.
  • Overheads (proportion of household/office expenses, e.g. rent/mortgage, heating, lighting, telephone bills).
  • Administration time.
  • Travel time and costs.
  • Training time and costs.
  • The cost of preliminary meetings.
  • Personal pension premiums.
  • Depreciation of equipment used for your business, e.g.: car, computer, etc.
  • Tax and national insurance payments.
  • Holiday time.
  • Allowance in case of illness.
  • Membership of professional organisations.
  • Other expenses such as photocopying, postage, stationery, publications, printer ink. All business-related costs are tax deductible.
  • Would you consider discounts for long pieces of work or while you are starting out? These must not prevent you from covering costs.
  • Even if it is difficult, it is very important to stick to figures stated in your proposal.


  • Are you aware of relevant health and safety regulations?
  • Are you aware of the museum’s health and safety procedures and facilities?
  • Are you covered by the museum’s insurance?
  • Are you up to date with safeguarding and data protection policy?
  • Do you have an up-to-date DBS check?

Considering a project

  • Do you understand exactly what the client wants you to do? Can you do it?
  • Are you interested in and enthusiastic about the project?
  • Is the timescale realistic?
  • Is the budget realistic? Will there be interim payments?
  • What are the contact hours?
  • Will you be in charge of anyone, e.g. other freelancers, staff or volunteers?
  • Who will be your main contact for the project? Do you have clear channels of communication with the museum? Have they agreed to keep you in the loop?
  • Have you agreed interim deadlines for different stages of the project? Consider writing progress reports.
  • How will the project be evaluated?
  • Who has editorial control?
  • Who has copyright? Do you have an agreement in writing? Check for the latest policies.
  • Who has to approve the final text before production?
  • Will you be paid for speculative meetings?Can you sub-contract any of the work?
  • Will you work at home, at the museum or both?
  • Are the facilities that you require available?
  • What background information do you need from the museum?
  • Do you have everything in writing as a formal agreement?

Does the brief provided by the museum include…

  • Background to the project and the museum?
  • Purpose of the work?
  • Skills and experience required for the project?
  • Details of the end product required?
  • Timescale including dates of interim meetings and reports? Budget of project including fees and any other expenses, such as travel costs?
  • Details of contact person?
  • Method of work including input from museum staff and resources available from the museum?
  • Details regarding copyright and editorial control?
  • Tender procedures?
  • Insurance arrangements and requirements?
  • Details of equal opportunities policy?

Do you have a formal agreement containing…

  • The responsibilities of each party?
  • Details of the exact work to be done and the end product required?
  • Facilities and resources to be provided by the museum?
  • Payment terms (interim payments or lump sum)?
  • Insurance arrangements?
  • Timescale including dates of interim meetings or reports?
  • Details of how the project will be evaluated?
  • Main contacts – who is the project leader?
  • Procedure for acknowledgement of your work?
  • Information about who has editorial control and who will own the copyright?
  • Procedure in case of illness, cancellation or postponement?
  • Arbitration procedure?
  • Confidentiality clause?
  • Remember this agreement can be drawn up by you, not just the employer.

Project management

  • Who has leadership of collaborative projects?
  • Are there plans for regular meetings and progress reports?
  • Who ensures that deadlines for different stages of the project are met, or can rearrange the timescale if necessary?
  • What is the procedure for making changes to the agreement? Ensure everything is put in writing.
  • Who is responsible for ongoing evaluation?

On completion of the project

  • Ensure that you receive a copy of the end product (e.g. resource pack).
  • Will you be acknowledged or credited in any way?
  • Can you have a testimonial from the museum?
  • Have you returned any borrowed material?
  • Can you take photographs to add to your portfolio of work?
  • Keep in touch with the museum for future projects or follow-up publicity etc.
  • Remember to invoice for the final payment
  • How can the effectiveness of the project be measured?
  • How can input be measured?
  • How will the museum evaluate your work for you to learn from?

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