Brown Bag Seminar Wednesday 10 October 2008

The Brown Bag seminar series at the Museum Studies Department at the University of Leicester offers an opportunity for the academics of the department to invite speakers to present a paper and follow it up with discussion. Last year we were exposed to a number of fascinating talks on all manner of subjects and this year it looks set to continue in the same vein. Remember that if you are a student with us here in Museum Studies you can access recordings of the seminars on Blackboard in case you miss them or want to listen again!

The first seminar for this academic year was presented by Dr Bernadette Lynch, a riveting and thought-provoking talk entitled 'Practising Radical Trust: Museums and the Sharing of Authority.' Bernadette has a long career in the museum sector and academia, including Deputy Director of The Manchester Museum. Her talk focused on the way in which museums work with their communities and her thoughts on how the relationship between them might become more equitable, and how museums might think more about the power implications in their responses to the people and communities that use them.

Bernadette is interested in how we might democratize the museum, viewing them as forums where debate and questioning is acknowledged as part of their function and encouraged, rather than shied away from. Most interesting was the suggestion that museums are afraid of generating conflict; that one 'use' of their power so to speak may be that, by avoiding conflict museums effectively shut down any opportunities for useful debate. Instead they work hard to create a consensus between the museum and their users, which may not always be to the benefit of both and leave many questions unresolved. Although museums are doing more to engage with their users, and non-users, there was a sense that few museums are prepared to go beyond their 'comfort zone' and expose themselves to meaningful dialogue, indulging instead in 'consultation' which rarely goes very deep. A useful term that Bernadette introduced me to was 'empowerment-lite' which has been used to describe this process, the sense that a veneer of authority is given to community groups but in the end it is the museum who retains the power - they have invited the groups in and they retain 'control' for instance over the roles that communities play and the parts of the museum over which they can have a say. Bernadette illustrated her talk with examples from the Manchester Museum and British Museum which illustrated some of the issues and challenges of community engagement.... there were so many issues raised that I am struggling to condense them into a pithy review! It seems that there are many debates to be had over whether museums can become truly democratic spaces, and Bernadette's paper raised many questions which she will be seeking answers for through her research. I very much look forward to reading the outcomes!


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