Workshop Reflections: Lon Dubinsky on Bernadette Lynch’s “Generally dissatisfied with the museum”

The author of this post, Lon Dubinsky, was one of the participants in “Generally dissatisfied with the museum: Reflective debate, radical transparency and trust in the museum in civil society,” a workshop in the CEREV Exhibition Lab in October 2013 led by museum writer, researcher and consultant Bernadette Lynch.

It is over a month since Bernadette Lynch’s workshop “Generally Dissatisfied with the Museum” at CEREV, yet her perspectives on museum theory and practice continue to resonate. She began the workshop by asking the participants to situate themselves along a “satisfaction spectrum” according to how they felt about the effectiveness of attempts by museums at public engagement. Most expressed dissatisfaction and this response became the starting point for Dr. Lynch’s account and analysis of her multifaceted and community driven-work in museums. She spoke about her experience with First Nations in Canada, of her time as a senior manager at the Manchester Museum, and about conducting a study for the Paul Hamlyn Foundation in which she worked with 12 museums and their community partners across the UK to explore the impact of engagement programs and practices.

This recent study (2009), the report of which is called Whose Cake Is It Anyway?, tackles some critical issues facing museums committed to engaging a wider and diverse public. These include who really owns the museum and how innovative and effective community initiatives are despite their intentions. As Lynch pointed out, in most cases they amount to, at best, “empowerment lite” and are rarely sustainable and long-term in their operation and impact. Yet, the upside is that Lynch is continuing to work closely with several of the museums who initially participated in the study. In this regard, and in her work generally, she insists that it is vital to keep thinking about what really constitutes change and to continue a process of ongoing self-reflection.

The Hamblyn study and follow up work certainly raises questions and issues for Canadian museums and galleries, large and small, committed to similar kinds engagement especially at a time when resources for all of their activities are stretched or contracting. What’s more, and sadly, there does not seem to be on the current horizon any private foundation in Canada committed to the museum and gallery sector in the way Hamlyn or other UK philanthropies are. This is why the work of the Hamlyn and other developments in the UK, despite the shrinking of government sources which Bernadette Lynch also noted, are a critically important source of examination and potential practice there and elsewhere, including Canada. For a copy of the report see:

Lon Dubinsky teaches in the Undergraduate and MFA studio programs in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia University. He is currently serving as a guest curator at Stewart Hall Gallery and has initiated, coordinated and participated in several major community-university-museum collaborations.

Center for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence