Engaging with History: Freelance Curating with Jennifer Forest

“The standard workplace is not set up for creatives, or for women with children, and those two things were really highlighted for me when I had my daughter.”

How did you first get interested in museum curation?

I always loved museums and I was particularly attracted to their role as storytellers and as different places of education and learning for all ages. When I was teaching in a high school, I remember taking a class on excursion to the Australian Museum in Sydney to see a major travelling exhibition of Ancient Greek and Roman artefacts. The whole exhibition was just so beautifully put together and so engaging that I knew that exhibition development was something I wanted to be part of.

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What’s the one thing you enjoy most about being a curator?

I enjoy making things. I have this real deep need to create and make. I do that as a hobby for my down time and I need to do that for my work as well, so being a curator where I get to make an exhibition for people is very much aligned with who I am. I like that creating an exhibition is about creating a carefully crafted physical experience that inspires and uplifts, or challenges and provokes. It’s a whole of body experience walking through an exhibition, interacting with the objects and the interpretation staff.

What’s the one thing you dislike in your job?

I’m a big picture person so I ask those difficult questions like ‘why are we doing this?’ and ‘how does this help anyone?’ This means that I don’t like it when people take diversions into unnecessary historical detail which are not relevant to people today or to the project at hand.

How did you you decide to go freelance?

The standard workplace is not set up for creatives, or for women with children, and those two things were really highlighted for me when I had my daughter. I find the quickest way to kill creative thinking is to expect it to turn on at 9am and stop at 5pm or later, every single day on the same topic. Being a freelancer means I can switch between projects, let my brain come up with new ideas and draw from different fields to create something better. Being a freelancer who is also a a parent means that I have control over my work day and my work life.

Was it a difficult transition to become a freelancer?

Yes and no. It’s not an easy life being a freelancer, but neither is being an employee for someone else. As a freelance, you have to be 200% determined to make this work and not listen to the negative voices in your head or from those around you.

What’s been the best advice you’ve gotten on running a business and having a family?

You have to do what works for you. Everyone’s situation is different and no two businesses, or families are the same. So you have to do what works for you, not some self-help guru or your best friend. Just because it worked for them doesn’t mean it will work for you. You have to work with your skills and your strengths, not with someone else’s.

What’s been your favorite exhibition?

The last exhibition I saw! I tend to love the last exhibition I saw but if I had to pick just one excellent exhibition I would say ‘First peoples: Bunjilaka’ at Melbourne Museum.

Do you have any tips for parents on how to get their kids interested in museums?

I fully understand how parents could find it hard to get kids interested in museums. This has long been a passion of mine, even before I had my own daughter.

Don’t just wander through galleries by yourself, trying to get the kids to stop and look. Talk with the guides and interpretative staff onsite at the museum. Go on a guided tour. Ask them questions in the galleries. Do a kid’s workshop. Guides are often an overlooked and hidden treasure of a museum. But they know so much and they also love people. Talk to them.

If someone wants to become a curator, what would you suggest they do?

It all depends on what kind of curator you want to be. If you want to be the traditional curator who is a subject matter specialist in one area of history, art or science in a major cultural institution, then you will need to get a PhD in that area of speciality. If you want to be an interpretative curator with a focus on visitor engagement and use of spaces, you will need to get a museums qualifications. Then get wide work experience in museums, zoos, national parks or art galleries. I would also say you look outside the cities, where there’s a lot of competition for jobs. Some of the best opportunities are found in the most unlikely places.

Jen Forrest is a freelance content writer and curator from Australia. Among her credits, she’s researched, written, designed and installed exhibition content for 15,000 visitors at a two-day festival, written four books, countless media releases, blog posts, articles and web copy as well as been a story consultant for film makers. Connect with her at www.carrotpatch.com.au

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