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Opportunities and constraints for the use of consultants in museum documentation

Leonard D. Will

This is a slightly revised version of a paper presented at the annual conference of CIDOC, the Documentation Committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) held at the Germanisches National Museum, Nürnberg, Germany, on 9th September 1997.

What is a consultant?

Changing patterns of employment

In the past most people who worked in museums were full-time, permanent members of staff. If the museum was run by government or by a university, they could look forward to a job for life, building their expertise in some part of the museum's work or collections. With "tenure" they had security of employment so long as they did their job and did not engage in gross misconduct.

Now there is less security and more flexibility. Jobs are no longer so fixed; there are fewer staff and they are expected to do whatever work needs to be done. Breadth is becoming more important than depth, and the role of the specialist scholar is diminishing.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. If there are fewer people who can tell you everything about a collection out of their heads, there is more need to have a good documentation system. The absence of any one member of staff no longer means a loss of the museum's information resources, and someone new coming to an area can build on what has already been done.

This increased flexibility is not bounded by the walls of each institution. People with particular skills, knowledge and interests now move from one museum to another to use and develop their expertise. Museums can benefit because they need pay such an expert only while their expertise is needed, and they do not have a long-term commitment to employ someone who does not fit the evolving nature of the museum.

Each museum has to decide on the correct balance for itself. Permanent staff are essential to give stability and continuity, and to take a medium to long-term view of the museum's development, but short-term and project staff can be of great value if appointed and used appropriately.

Consultant or contractor

The term "consultant" is widely used but also widely misunderstood. It is useful to make a distinction between consultants, who advise the museum on ways in which it can do something, or help it to solve a problem, and contractors or freelance workers, who actually carry out work on behalf of the museum.

Employment status is not a determining factor, and both consultants and contractors may be permanently or temporarily employed by the museum, employed by an agency or other company, or self-employed. Different parts of the museum, or of a larger body to which it belongs, may provide internal consultancy or contracting services to other parts. Employees of an external company may have an effectively permanent post within a museum, for example when a function such as running the IT services or building maintenance is performed under a facilities management contract.

There is no rigid boundary between these different types of museum worker, and there is no reason to set one up, so long as for each individual person their status and terms of employment are clear and both sides agree on what their job is. For the remainder of this paper I shall, however, concentrate on the role of the consultant, acting primarily as an adviser and facilitator.

What does a consultant bring to a museum?

A consultant brings two main types of benefit: specific knowledge and experience and a fresh, analytical and objective approach to a problem.

My personal view is that the latter is more important than the former. Clearly an effective consultant must have a good all-round appreciation of current practice and a view of the way things will go in future based on substantial evidence and informal contacts, but it is not necessary to insist that a consultant has actually worked on a project identical to yours. Indeed, if you do insist on this, you may bring in someone with a limited view who will recommend replicating what they did the last time. If you are seeking help in assessing an automated documentation system, for example, someone who has worked closely with a particular system may find it difficult to avoid bias for or against that system, just because they know it well.

The fundamental problems of museum documentation are not substantially dependent on the subject matter of the collections, and you may well find that the best person to advise on documenting your collection of clothing last worked with a collection of railway engines. Some aspects of your project will be new to a consultant, who should have the ability to become familiar quickly with a new field.

I have emphasised that the role of a consultant is to advise. It is not primarily to solve problems, but to help the museum to find solutions. This can only be effective if the museum has a commitment to tackling the problem and implementing whatever recommendations are agreed on. No consultant can deal adequately with a client who says "Please come and set up a system for us" without appointing someone to take responsibility for the continuing running and development of that system long after the consultant has gone. Someone within the museum must "own" the problem, and when it has been resolved, with or without a consultant's help, they must "own" the solution.

The "owner of the problem" is the main person with whom the consultant will deal, but a consultant is responsible to the museum as a whole, and may have to consider a problem in a wider context than the one in which it is presented. An individual member of staff may feel strongly that the museum should do something, and engage a consultant to advise on how to do it. The consultant has not only to consider how to do it, but also should form a view on whether it should be done at all. If there are doubts about this, or if there appears to be a difference of opinion between staff, then the consultant should try to bring these matters into the open and help to reach agreement.

Consultants in museum documentation

I shall not go to go into detail of all the tasks in the area of museum documentation to which a consultant can contribute. Potentially a consultant can help in any aspect of the work in which the museum has a need. A few examples are:

Defining what you want

For a consultancy project to be successful, the clients should be clear about what they want. This need not be a detailed brief in the first instance, because the museum may not know enough to define the steps to a solution. They may only be able to recognise that, e.g., "Our documentation is in a mess" or "We keep hearing about new developments and standards and we want to get up to date" or "Our computer system is on its last legs and we need to replace it". In cases such as these it may be best to split the consultancy work into two stages: first a scoping study to define the problem and then the main project to consider how to deal with it.

As noted above, there is no rigid boundary between advisory and executive functions. A consultant may well be required to carry the process through past the stages of advising on the kind of system that would best suit the museum into the choosing, customising and implementing of that system. In the field of documentation, this will require three different areas of expertise: the organisation of the information itself, and the choices of software and hardware. More than one consultant may be required to cover these aspects, and they will have to work with different groups of in-house specialists, such as curators, documentalists and IT staff. They may become members of, or advisers to, the project management team, on which technical, business and users' interests should be represented.

Choosing a consultant

Inviting bids

Most consultants are chosen by personal contacts; they may be known to the museum personally or by their publications and other professional activities, or may be recommended by a previous client. This gives some assurance that you know what you are getting, but the consultant you know may not in fact be the best for your job. Most consultants welcome an element of competition in the selection process, because it is one way in which they can measure the quality of their service against that of their competitors and it avoids too many contracts going to a few consultants who happen to have become particularly well known.

For projects of any size, bids should be invited from three to five consultants, identified not only by personal recommendation but also from the registers and directories of professional bodies. If possible, the project should be advertised. A note sent to appropriate Internet newsgroups and mailing lists may generate responses from interested consultants and comments and suggestions from other readers.

While open and fair competition is to be welcomed, it must not be made too onerous. The preparation of a formal proposal represents a substantial amount of work, perhaps requiring exploratory visits and discussions, with no assurance that it will be paid for. The requirements for a proposal have to be kept proportionate to the size of the whole project. Museums should also not expect consultants to give away all their best ideas in their proposals, and there are potentially tricky ethical questions about using ideas from the proposals of unsuccessful bidders.

Assessing bids

Some of the points to consider when assessing proposals come out of what I have said above:


During preliminary discussions with consultants, it may become clear that the scope or nature of the project should be changed. It is quite reasonable to do this, but you must take care that in doing so you are not being unfair to other consultants who might wish to change their bids to reflect changed requirements. Once an appointment has been made, you should be willing to explain to unsuccessful bidders why they were not chosen; this kind of feedback is a necessary part of the market mechanism to ensure that services offered match the needs of clients.

The cost of consultancy

Consultancy rates

Consultancy fees sometimes appear high - and indeed sometimes are high. It is important, though to assess them fairly in comparison with the costs of alternatives.

In the UK, a middle-ranking curator in a national museum with sufficient experience to act as a consultant will earn around 25,000 pounds (GBP) per year. The total cost of employing such a person, will be about 1.5 times this, about 170 GBP per working day. For a consultant, you have to pay a premium for flexibility (or from the consultant's point of view, risk and insecurity), as well as for the time and cost of running their business, keeping up to date and maintaining contacts. Allowing a further factor of at least 1.5 for this gives a daily rate of 255 GBP. This is around the minimum a consultant can afford to charge: additions to this cost will reflect the consultant's knowledge and experience, and typical rates are in the region of 300 to 500 GBP per day. The daily rate for a long job may be less than for a short one, to reflect the proportionately smaller cost of administration and familiarisation with the client's needs.

It is often more appropriate to assess consultancy costs in relation to the potential benefits savings and risks rather than simply looking at the cost for the time taken.

Time or project basis of payment

Consultants may contract to work on a project for a fixed fee, or may be paid an agreed rate per day for the work that they do.

With a fixed fee the consultant has to estimate the time the project will take, and takes the risk that it will turn out more complicated than expected. The work and the deliverables have to be clearly defined, and the consultant has to have substantial control of the project so that delays or changes by the museum do not affect the time required. The museum knows what it will get, when it will get it and what it will cost, with a minimum of uncertainty.

If the work cannot be clearly defined at the outset, or if the project is being managed by the museum with the consultant called in from time to time to give advice or to do parts of the work, then payment for the time taken will be more appropriate. There is less risk for the consultant in this case, though the need to record the time used for each part of the work is an increased burden. "Thinking time" and background reading is hard to account for on this basis. If the project is not under the consultants' control, it will be more difficult to predict when they will be needed, so there are constraints on their ability to schedule other work. The museum may have to accept that they may not be available when needed, or else may have to pay a retainer fee to guarantee a certain amount of time per week or per month.


A consultancy contract is not just a formality. It is a way of ensuring an effective and satisfactory relationship between consultant and client, by making sure that they both know what they have undertaken to do. A good contract will also answer many "what if" questions in advance, so that if anything unexpected happens there will be no need to try to negotiate an agreement after difficulties have arisen. Some points that the contract should cover are:

Professional indemnity insurance

Some contracts include a requirement that a consultant should be covered by large amounts of professional indemnity insurance. Such requirements will usually lead to increased fees, because this type of insurance is expensive - presumably insurance companies are aware of the expensive failure of some major computer projects, many of which are not directly comparable to museum documentation work. Clients should consider whether such insurance is necessary, if they choose a consultant with adequate references who will help them to make an informed decision on the options available.

Consultancy methods

The techniques that a consultant will use will depend on the nature of the project, but for a typical advisory project they may include:

Concluding a consultancy

Many consultancy projects finish when a final report is submitted and the consultant's invoice is paid. Although the consultant may then move on to another project, it is inevitable that they will be interested in the outcome and it is very helpful to be kept in touch with developments. Informal contact by telephone calls and visits later help to build a continuing relationship, and most consultants will gladly give further advice and suggestions later to ensure that the project is a success.

It is in the interests not only of the museum but also of the consultant to have satisfied clients who are happy to have received value for money, who will come back when they need further consultancy and will recommend the consultant to other clients. If this happens, both the museum and the consultant will feel that the project has had a satisfactory outcome.


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This document is at http://www.willpowerinfo.co.uk/consult.htm
Revised 2008-11-23 16:14
Comments and feedback on content or presentation are welcome and should be sent to Leonard Will