Museum Mercenary: A Handbook for Independent Museum Professionals by Rebecca Migdal. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2020.
REVIEWED BY MARISSA HAMM
Every aspiring museum professional has heard about the multitude of difficulties they will face when trying to enter the field. In Museum Mercenary, Rebecca Migdal presents her solution to this issue of limited full-time museum jobs: freelance work. Migdal’s book is a comprehensive how-to guide for anyone interested in becoming what she calls a “museum mercenary,” a professional who serves society by assisting cultural organizations in exchange for money (xvii). Migdal covers every step of becoming a museum mercenary beginning with early thoughts of whether to go freelance, and ending with how to maintain momentum once you are an established consultant. Museum Mercenary is the definitive guide for any new or long-established museum professional who is intrigued by the prospect of a freelance career, but unsure of how to start.
Migdal organizes her guide in five parts. In Part I: Venture, Migdal forces you to seriously weigh the pros and cons of freelance work and to make a decision about whether to pursue this path. Part II: Hustle focuses on establishing your freelance image and how to secure your first clients. Part III: Paperwork may be the most dull part of the book, but it is certainly the most practical section. It covers all of the laws applicable to consultants and offers advice on how to manage your money, choose insurance, and plan for retirement. After all of this preparation to start your museum mercenary career, Part IV: Endeavor delves into how to actually do the work for which you are paid, including how to establish clear lines of communication, practice good time management, and handle any issues that may arise during a project. Finally, Part V: What’s Next?, focuses on sustaining a long, healthy museum mercenary career by maintaining momentum while also taking time for self-care.
Museum Mercenary is not a traditional academic book. Rather, it is a manual or self-help guide, a fact that Migdal highlights in her introduction. The book can be read cover-to-cover or it can be picked up for reference at any stage in the museum mercenary journey. There are numerous “activities” throughout the text that readers are encouraged to complete as part of their path towards freelance. For example, there are prompts that encourage you to brainstorm how your business website will look, what your current network of museum professionals is, and how much you may have to spend on supplies as a freelancer. Even if you are not seriously considering a museum mercenary career, this book is a valuable resource for any museum professional who wants to learn about how the field is changing, or to reflect on why you continue to work in museums (for which Chapter 1 is helpful).
One of the successes of Migdal’s work is its accessibility. While the book does require a basic understanding of museum terms and common tasks of museum workers, Migdal does not make assumptions about the reader’s prior knowledge of non-museum terms such as Roth IRA, a type of retirement fund. At times, Migdal’s attention to small details can be excessive and borderline patronizing. This is especially apparent at the book’s start when she discusses setting up your office and how to dress professionally. Generally, anyone who is ready for the task of museum freelance work has experience in a professional space and would already know this information. An unintentionally humorous aspect of Migdal’s excessive detail is her description of the complications of working from home – a situation that many have now experienced thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The debate on the prevalence of consultants in museums and the issues surrounding traditional museum jobs is ongoing, but if that is a debate you are interested in exploring, Museum Mercenary is not the book for that conversation. Although Migdal is transparent about the difficulties of being a museum mercenary (such as isolation and instability), her core belief is that more gig work is inevitable in the museum field and that this is a positive professional shift. Assuming Migdal is correct and this shift is inevitable, then her book will be an invaluable resource for a range of early to mid-career museum professionals and graduate students in the future.
Marissa Hamm is a graduate student in the IUPUI School of Liberal Arts Museum Studies masters program. She has a broad range of museum experience in the areas of local history research, historic site interpretation, art history, digital project management, collections care, and medical history.