Mind in the marketplace (Part 1): Taking the leap into historical consulting

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Famous jump scene from the 1969 western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, directed by George Roy Hill, written by William Goldman and starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

1997 was the hardest year of my adult life.  During that year my marriage of 15 years ended in divorce; during that same year, my employer, a nationally prominent museum of American cultural history, began to transform itself into a children’s museum, and eliminated the position of “senior historian” that I had held for the previous seven years.

Determined to continue living close by my three children, and anxious to continue the museum-based public history work that I loved, I circulated a letter to colleagues and friends announcing that I was seeking freelance consulting work and was prepared to take on independent curatorial or museum interpretive planning projects.  Writing this letter, and spending a couple of hours designing a letterhead, marked my professional rebirth as an “exhibition developer and consulting historian.”  A combination of luck, hustle, and the enduring benefit derived from eleven years of pre-consulting experience as a museum historian have combined to make my freelance venture reasonably successful.  I am now in my fifteenth year working as an independent consultant to museums and NGO’s.

It would be fair to say that my “choice” to become a consultant was largely involuntary.  I did not anticipate that I would make such a choice.  Few models of historians working independently as freelance sole proprietors were visible at that time.  Much like Butch and Sundance, I jumped because I had no alternative.  My sentiments upon making the leap were similar to theirs.

My decision to become a consultant coincided with my election to the board of NCPH.  At that time the consultants’ committee did not exist, and the visible presence of consultants was mostly limited to historians who worked for sizeable consulting firms, many of which specialized in government-funded CRM work.  During my tenure on the board we acknowledged the increasing importance of consultants as an NCPH constituency by creating the consultant’s committee.  This was an important step for NCPH.

Within the NCPH membership, employees of large consulting firms have continued to outnumber individual consultants who work on their own.  However, a sufficient number of freelance consulting historians have now made successful careers that the next generation has some visible models to observe.  Some in the next generation have identified consulting as a career goal early rather than later in their careers.

As a means of making one individual consulting model visible, I intend to follow this post with a series of subsequent posts that describe both my experience and my perspectives as a freelancer. I hope that these will prove useful to anyone who seeks to understand better this potentially promising way of practicing public history.  I welcome the prospect of conversation and the exchange of ideas that may follow.


~ Christopher S. Clarke, Ph.D.
Exhibition Developer and Consulting Historian
Rochester, NY

  1. A great post. My first post for the launch of H2K – History to Knowledge is also about historian as entrepreneur.


    Looking forward to having NCPH meeting in Ottawa next April!

  2. Thanks for this series of blog posts on independent consulting. I too left a stable career as a museum historian in a prominent history museum – by choice – to return to my native Colorado with my husband. I hadn’t planned on starting my own business, but the employment options in 2010 (as now) were limited. Surveying the needs in my new community, I was able to craft a business that leverages my skills – I think that is the key to success. StoryForge helps nonprofits understand the value of their own history and how to tell their story to foster support from the community, funders, and other stakeholders. I do research, grant writing, public programs, annual reports, evaluation – products that nonprofits need but don’t have the capacity to create in-house. It has been very rewarding to be involved in the community at this level – something that wasn’t possible in my former career. I look forward to future posts!

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