Am I the only remote working museum consultant in the world?

Working from home, let alone remotely, is not common in the museum world.

Opening of Vivienne Westwood: A Life in Fashion exhibition, ArtisTree, Hong Kong, 2008 (Photo © Swire Properties)

I often dreamed of living somewhere with palm trees.

Not much to ask, right?

So now I wonder (literally, I am in wonder) how I ended up living in Barcelona. A city with palm trees, beaches, mountains, sunshine, my favourite bands, lots of museums and galleries, and an inspiring creative atmosphere — everything I love in a city!

This wonder comes from the fact that I do not have a typical ‘digital nomad’ profession that we so often hear about — I’m not a graphic designer, programmer, online marketing expert. My work is something very different: I work with museums and galleries on touring exhibitions and international projects.

When people think of museum workers, they think of curators looking after collections of old objects. My museum projects have actually allowed me to travel all over the world for work, and to places I would never have visited as a tourist — even less so as a solo female traveller, such as Iran, Yemen, Libya, and most of Eastern Europe before it joined the EU. So how did this all come about?

Forging a new path

Coffee break during thai yoga massage course at the Lahu village in Thailand

It all started with an unpaid career break. In 2011 I travelled for nine months across South America and Southeast Asia, which filled me with excitement to travel more and learn about other countries and cultures.

For someone who never had any desire to be self-employed or work freelance (how could I ever cope with the uncertainty of not having regular work?!), in 2014 I surprised myself by applying for a one-year freelance project contract: an amazing opportunity to work with smaller museums across the UK and to help them work internationally. It meant leaving a permanent job at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London to take up an unstable position with less holiday, no benefits, no extra pay, and no opportunity to travel. But my gut instinct told me to give it a go.

This freelance position taught me about being self-employed, freelancing, working for myself and running a business. It opened my eyes to a whole new way of working and living that I never thought was open to me. Suddenly, I could make decisions quickly and autonomously, and I didn’t have a team to delegate to. I was responsible for everything!

When my Cisco networking genius husband had the opportunity to move to Barcelona, there was no hesitation to going along with him. After all, we’d been visiting the city regularly for many years and had good friends here. And there were palm trees!

Taking advantage of technology

When I moved to Barcelona I continued working on the same contract, just remotely. For the International Council of Museums UK branch (ICOM UK) I was running a project to develop the knowledge and confidence of regional UK museums to work internationally, developing workshops and online resources to help them overcome some of the challenges.

I found myself facing the same challenges in my new life in Barcelona — not being fluent in the local languages, understanding there are many different ways of doing things (not that one way is right or wrong), figuring out unfamiliar bureaucratic systems, getting used to a different pace of life etc. Although I had extensive experience of working on international projects, dealing with these challenges on a daily basis gave me a deeper empathy for working with international partners and overcoming differences and challenges.

Working from home, let alone remotely, is not common in the museum world. So my principal client took some convincing that I could fulfil my contract working from Barcelona, and travelling to the UK every couple of weeks for meetings or events.

Making sure I am properly set up for remote working has helped. A VoIP phone service means I have my UK landline number wherever I am and a good mobile plan gives me free roaming minutes and data. This means my clients in the UK don’t need to worry about where I am when they call me, or the cost of calling an international landline or mobile. Obviously, I can access my email and files from anywhere with a reliable cloud service. I’m now at the stage where my clients, if there are interested, have to ask me if I am in the UK or Barcelona.

Friday café co-working and lunch at Lexington (Photo: Barcelona Freelancers Meetup)

When work becomes play

The biggest, and most unexpected, challenge over the past two years has been balancing work and life with travelling to and from the UK. Some months I don’t need to travel at all, but other times I am travelling to and from the UK several times a month.

This to-ing and fro-ing has to a certain extent prevented me from putting down roots. It has been a lot harder to develop quality friendships and to get to know the city on a personal level. I have to be mindful to stay in contact with my Barcelona life when I am in the UK. This is where social media and WhatsApp have been lifesavers, even if, ideally, I would like to spend less (rather than more!) time online outside of work.

Ironically, it also means I haven’t travelled much in Catalonia or Spain. I don’t have the same appetite for flying when I am not working, because going to the airport feels like just another commute. In 2017 I intend to make more of an effort to see more of Catalonia. I would love to do some regional hiking, visit more of the Pyrenees and the beautiful beaches along the Costa Brava.

Readdressing life-life balance

I thought that working freelance would automatically give me a better work-life balance. What I have realised however, is that being a happy and successful freelancer is about finding life balance.

This is the way I see it: I have one life and work is part of it. If one part of my life is out of balance, it affects the other parts. In this context, it doesn’t seem so helpful to compartmentalise things. It causes me more stress trying to find a balance in each area of my life, than trying to take a holistic approach towards my whole life.

This balance is found within ourselves and is based less on external factors than we might think. I am lucky to do work that I enjoy, and I chose to juggle living and working between two countries. Yet if I don’t make time for the non-work activities that I really enjoy and nourish me (which for me, are yoga, meditation, thai massage, sewing, travelling, going to see live music etc), then I am denying my own well-being. If I am not looking after myself, then how can I do my best work or do the things that I love?

One of the most curious things I noticed moving from London to Barcelona was that no one ever starts a conversation with ‘what do you do [for work]?’. In fact, work hardly ever comes up in conversation at all! This has caused me to reflect on how I had often defined myself by my work or ‘what I did’. This change in attitude has helped me shift towards prioritising time for non-work things.

Private house attic co-working (Photo: Barcelona Freelancers Meetup) me far left

Working as a location independent museum consultant

Has my career in museum work developed since making the move to Barcelona? The answer is yes and no.

I realised very quickly after arriving that because I didn’t study here, nor do I have a postgraduate degree or speak Catalan fluently, the options for working in public museums in Barcelona are almost non-existent.

Yet I’ve been really inspired by the freelancers, digital nomads and start-up entrepreneurs I’ve met at Meetup, co-working and Flylancer events. People who have pursued their dream of living abroad and have not been deterred by the challenges of finding work in another country or starting their own business. People with less traditional jobs and innovative ways of working have opened my eyes all over again to the variety of possibilities that are open to us for finding a life balance that also includes work.

I am now exploring options for new ways of working remotely with museums, and combining this with my passion for health and well-being. Now that I have palm trees in my life it’s time to aim for my new goal — combining part-time museum work with part-time work as a Thai Yoga Massage practitioner. Vamos a ver!

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Dana is a member of the Flylancer community. Flylancer is a global network for remote workers to meet, share and have fun together. Find out more info here.