Julie Arrison-Bishop and I connected via Instagram as she launched her small but mighty museum consulting firm, MuseumTastic. What are the pros and cons of working with museum consultants? How can they support museum missions and staff and contribute to a more welcoming and inclusive environment? I’m obsessed with MuseumTastic’s motto: “Fantastic work isn’t complicated, it just takes support.” Read below to learn how Julie enacts this, along with what it actually looks like to be able to step away from a full-time museum career and pivot into consulting. Thank you to Julie for providing this post!
When asked about why I wanted to work in museums, I can point back to a day in second grade when my class went on a field trip to Storrowtown Village. I can remember wearing a pink calico dress and mop cap and I can still smell the distinctive odor of beeswax, melted and ready for us to dip candles. I remember the dark of the Georgian houses, the uncomfortable desks in the one-room schoolhouse, and the sense of joy that day brought me.
Fast forward to 2021. I was working at The House of the Seven Gables, an internationally famous historic house and site in Salem, MA. My desk overlooked the harbor, the houses all had the smell of age and the patina of Colonial Revival restoration. My staff was resilient in the face of the pandemic and sharing a new, inclusive tour and site experience that took years to build. We were sharing programs in hybrid settings, offering school age children and senior citizens virtual field trips, and engaging in ways we never thought possible.
I’ve never shied away from a challenge. In conjunction with my education and full-time museum work, I worked as a bartender until I was married and more secure with a dual income. I thought, as a service worker, I had grown a thick enough skin to handle the public. I could brush off the most abrasive October visitor with a shrug. The pandemic changed my mindset and love of working with the public drastically. Reopening The Gables in the summer of 2020 was a gut-wrenching yet financially necessary decision. Our visitor services team was decimated. Until September, there were two of us who welcomed visitors for a gardens-only experience. For every lovely human that entered our visitor center, three not-so-lovely humans often followed behind, hurling swears and threats.
After nearly two years of being a human shield for my staff while taking visitor abuse, an opportunity to take a break presented itself in September 2021. Now, I work full-time as a marketing content manager for a software company. Even in the interview process, I was asked, “won’t you be bored,” “do you think you’ll miss museums,” “is the corporate life going to actually make you happy?”
I love what I do on a full-time basis. I’m working with an incredibly smart and talented Marcom team in a fast-paced role. That said, the interviewers were right. I knew my heart would be empty without museums and museum people. I also knew there were times I needed small project support – someone to help with light research; a set of eyes to edit a newsletter; a social media auditor; a trainer for my staff; an objective voice.
I have made the analogy that working with consultants is like listening to a cool aunt or uncle. For example, your parents can tell you over and over that vegetables are good for you, but when your awesome aunt or uncle makes the suggestion, you eat those veggies right up. That kind of objective voice is sometimes what staff and boards often need to “eat their vegetables,” or to get over hurdles and move projects along.
Being an effective consultant means being:
- a great listener and having an ability to read between the lines of conversations to learn about successes and pain points for staff and organizations.
- somebody that stakeholders know they can be honest with
- a person that can share out information in an objective manner
- organized. For my clients and projects, I need to know mission, vision, programs, nuances, budgets, and more – and I need to keep it all straight in between these projects.
MuseumTastic is the culmination of my years in the field. To back up a bit, I started off as a volunteer at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site which led me into my first grad school classes that focused on nonprofit management. From there, I started taking on projects with the Franklin Park Coalition (Boston’s biggest Olmsted park) and decided to commit to the Public History masters program at Northeastern. Thanks to my Olmsted connections, I was able to have a paid student internship at Boston National. I also spent a summer working with the Thornton Burgess Society on Cape Cod. Each of these internships provided me with real project-based learning that helped me land my first full-time role at the Massachusetts Historical Society, working with the president and development office. From there, I was a site manager with Historic New England and then took on my most fruitful full-time role with The House of the Seven Gables.
Every one of my jobs was a stepping stone. I have been fortunate over my years to work with some talented leadership who allowed me to explore ideas and expand my skill set. Without great mentors, I wouldn’t have the skill set I have today, and the confidence to have started MuseumTastic.
My ability to start MuseumTastic comes from a point of privilege. I have a supportive spouse who is an equal in the home. I have a full-time job with defined hours and a secure paycheck. I was able to take a small financial risk to start my business. Because of the nature of my work, my overhead is coworking space, software subscriptions, and professional affiliation memberships. I had time off in between jobs to bring my vision to life. As any colleague would say, I have a knack for process and organization and was able to launch quickly with support from a group of advisors and a small business mentorship with the SCORE program.
Personally, the biggest challenge for MuseumTastic is finding equilibrium with my full-time professional and family lives. Rushing from work to a little league game to dinner to going online for a few hours is a balancing act. While trying to grow my business, I also have obligations that need my attention. I often get the suggestion that I should just “make the leap” and go full-time on my own, but I’m not ready to face that level of uncertainty.
I feel incredibly fortunate to already have a small client base and a group of talented freelance partners to work with. I am managing the implementation of a heritage trail project in partnership with a talented freelance researcher and designer. I’m engaged in a year-long evaluation project with a local historic organization where we are surveying and hosting in-depth interviews with public program attendees and reaching out to the wider community to learn more about community engagement with the organization. I am wrapping a facilitation project for a small museum that opted for an internal strategic planning process and needed support to keep meetings on track, timely, and with a museum professional in the room. With another freelance partner, MuseumTastic is exploring grant and fundraising strategy options to help with financial growth for a newer nonprofit. With each of these projects, I feel like I am able to both maintain and grow my museum skill set while making a difference for organizations. I am also able to hire additional freelance partners with enriching projects and pay them at a fair rate. When I attended AAM in May and explained my business model, most people who I spoke to said it was exciting because there is so much need for just a little bit of support and affordable options to get things done.
There is no doubt that most museum and nonprofit employees are overwhelmed by ever-increasing workloads and instabilities. I often think about the Nonprofit AF post about crappy office chairs NOT being a badge of honor. Many work in understaffed, uncomfortable, and even unsafe conditions. Hours far beyond the 40-hour work week might be the norm, not the exception. The expectation of being available via phone and email at all times is not a healthy boundary. Equitable pay for comparable skills and abilities in other fields and living wages seem far off. There is no way that our field will become more diverse without flexibility in schedules, pay that matches desired education levels, and transparency in leadership.
If a little bit of outside support can release some internal staff pressures, MuseumTastic is doing its job. As an example, in a former role, I was tasked with surveying visitor satisfaction and told to just get a group of volunteers and interns to do the work. There wasn’t recognition that for me to do this, I would need to schedule, train, and manage these volunteers and interns, set up survey stations and the technology for electronic surveys, and compile and report back results – a project that would add up to weeks of my staff time. For a current MuseumTastic project, I am doing this work FOR the organization at an agreeable rate. Staff can focus on managing the programs and interacting with visitors while I do the “heavy lifting” of engagement evaluation.
Even with the challenges of increasing workload and a balanced personal life, I’m glad that I made the decision to take this leap into starting MuseumTastic. I can keep up my museum and nonprofit skills while supporting some wonderful organizations with affordable, small project support. As the workload grows, I’m able to bring on talented partners who also can grow their talents and have flexible, freelance pay in a field that they love. My hope is that a second grader today feels that same excitement that I had, because of a project I was a part of, and it inspires them to pursue a job where they want to educate, preserve, and better our world.