Contemporary Museology

Simon Knell

The term ‘contemporary museology’, as I use it here, does not blandly refer to ‘museology today’.  In a recent a book, I defined the ‘contemporary museum’ as an institution attuned to a new Zeitgeist—the global contemporary—a sense of living in a non-hierarchical, globally-connected world preoccupied with that thin slice of time represented by contemporary living.[1] Centred on the needs of the citizen, this view of museology is oppositional to that which uses the museum as an instrument and structure to embed and express disciplinary, cultural and political power. Eilean Hooper-Greenhill termed such institutions ‘modernist museums’ because they applied the assumptions of ‘modern’ (positivistic and rationally—rather than socially—progressive) disciplines and worldviews and promoted a communication model based on transmission.[2] I will come to Hooper-Greenhill’s post-museum concept later, but it is important to understand that the so-called modernist museum was never entirely rational and thus never entirely modern in that sense.[3] It was always a human space of negotiation, though it was—as Pierre Bourdieu argued—also a place of cultural empowerment and control.[4] Contemporary museology is not, however, a rejection of disciplinarity; art, archaeology, geology and history are cultural concepts as much as they are intellectual ones. The idea does, however, demand a rethinking of power and purpose in the expert-public relationship. I will provide examples of this below. 

Contemporary museology is also oppositional to a ‘creative industries’ approach to the museum based on institutionalism, corporatism and the ‘business’ of being a museum. Based on economic rather than social models of operation, which are invariably imposed from the outside, these approaches reductively turn visitors and citizens into customers and consumers, exhibitions and programmes into products, and collections and staff into deployable resource. Such an approach erodes the intellectual, cultural and philosophical distinctiveness of the museum. The orientation of contemporary museology reverses the implied relationship here because everything begins with the situated citizen, who ‘owns’ the public museum and is thus deserving of its services. A business orientation of the kind I have just describes attempts to break this bond, effectively privatising the museum and demanding a further payment for its use. The public museum does not sell a product, it realises its obligations; it shares and enables. I am not making a statement of blind idealism here, but rather arguing that to effectively manage a museum one must adopt a philosophical position on its purpose. I also recognise that economic models of operation are generally imposed from the outside and beyond the control of museum directors.[5]

As to the Zeitgeist—the global contemporary[6]—this is not a concept imposed but one observed in the operational character of much of the world. Contemporary museology is simply a term that recognises this moment and considers how the museum needs to change in order to perform in this flattened world. Of course, museums are constantly responding to the changing world and thus are already partly adapted to the needs of the global contemporary. They have not done so because they detect the emergence of a new reality, but because theoretical, social, cultural and economic challenges demanded it. These challenges are understood in the language and context of the time in which they manifest themselves. Hooper-Greenhill’s egalitarian vison for the ‘post-museum’, for example, emerged from intellectual turmoil of postmodernism but also in the very real institutional context of the 1990s. It contributes to the ideas of contemporary museology, though now we might understand this in the context of a field fundamentally transformed by globalisation over the last twenty years and now being shaped by the entry of China into the debate.    

Today, our lives attend to the contemporary like never before. And while it can be claimed that the citizen’s knowledge of the world ebbs and flows with changing political geographies, media developments and educational curricula, it is certainly true that our access to the world today is unlike anything previously experienced. It challenges all previous systems of knowledge production and social organisation with their tendency towards cultural segmentation and hierarchy. The contemporary museum is not defined by its study and representation of the contemporary—though it could certainly do that; what sets it apart is a decision to sets its agenda and outlook according to the peculiar conditions of today. It can be concerned with any subject matter—history, art, science, technology, society, and so on. In this paper, I want to reflect on how three interconnected developments—technological change, globalisation and critical discourse—led to this new way of thinking about the museum. Of the three and from our current perspective, technological change appears to be the most important particularly in orienting time towards the contemporary.

The rise of the contemporary

Arguably, within the Western experience, the reorientation of time, space and the global citizen in ways that lead to the global contemporary begin with the birth of the personal computer, Internet and World Wide Web. However, while this made us globally networked and introduced the idea of socially-produced knowledge, it was the miniaturisation of these technologies and their migration into always-connected mobile media platforms that positioned us firmly in the contemporary. Unlike change in museums, which generally responds to the flow of funding and debate, technological futures follow roadmaps. The direction of travel is predetermined and shaped by technocrats and futurologists. By the start of 1990s, this had positioned the ‘Information Superhighway’ centrally in American and European visions of the future.[7] The visual interface of the World Wide Web was then coming into being and held such promise that politicians argued for the migration of these technologies from universities and defence organisations into the public realm. Conceiving the birth of an ‘information society’, museums unexpectedly found themselves key to this future for they possessed non-commercially sensitive public collections of culture and associated information. These could be used with impunity to build the technologies necessary to realise this dream.  

That dream, however, could not imagine the world in which we now live. It envisaged a world of knowledge, information and authority. Indeed, in its early years, public institutions like the Louvre and NASA, which became big players in this new world, used the Web as a virtual exhibition spaces—as surrogates for the museum. Indeed, the Web showed itself to be inherently museological. In doing so it embraced the institutional traditions of authority, dissemination and control to be found in the museum. At this time—in the 1990s—museums imagined that the Web might generate new income streams and that through their own digitisation projects they would simply curate and control images and information as they did their physical collections. They could not conceive that they might lose control of this resource—but then no one could in the era when ‘tech giants’ were manufacturers of machines and systems: Microsoft, Intel, Apple and IBM. The Web then possessed the free-to-use egalitarianism of Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision. 

PCs had first entered museums in the UK in considerable numbers in the late 1980s. They were used to continue a process of digitising catalogues and registers, something that had begun in the previous decade and involved the movement of data on cards and paper printouts between the museum and a central mainframe computer.[8] For museums at this time, the arcane idiosyncrasies of both the MS-DOS PC and information science seemed to suggest that the technological revolution would always be controlled by technocrats lacking a primary commitment to a friendly human-machine interface. Museums might have argued that the ultimate goal was the democratisation of public information—giving the public access to the things that they ultimately owned—but the information being generated was of a kind used largely to control objects and keep them safe. It was not interpretive. Museums were already active in other areas of democratisation, introducing visual or open storage systems and discovery centres. Like the science centre movement, which many museums saw as inspiring, this new age of interactivity actually offered very limited citizen empowerment. Ultimately, all aimed to deliver knowledge rather than, for example, permit a member of the public to engage in doing science. Nevertheless, museums were by then committed inspire—to realise affective change—rather than to teach, but arguably inspiration came not from these physical technologies but from the staff themselves. That had always been the case; museums were always about professionals and what they did and much less about the objects they keep and show. 

Having developed their love of their subject within particular disciplines, it was inevitable that their enthusiasms were both for the objects and a disciplinary way of doing things. In Britain, this rarely caused problems but in other parts of the world old and new disciplinary views were being challenged, and particularly in museums.[9] Museums also found themselves in the middle of debates between academic elites and the wider communities they sometimes sought to control or exclude.[10] Art history—so central to the West’s most elite cultural institutions—came under particular pressure. This caused turmoil in academic communities but left the elite art museums largely unscathed and unaltered. They continued to assert the ethics and possibility of cumulatively acquired, neutral and objective knowledge. This ability to remain immune to change—which arises from the inertia of collections, extraordinary buildings and cultural position—is important. Indeed, the more the world has changed and lost its sense of certainty, the more the eternal museum seems to be required. I will return to this point at the end of this section.

By 2001, European researchers were envisioning the flow of information from institutional repositories, like museums, into wearable technologies. They imagined a world of ‘ambient intelligence’: ‘People are surrounded by intelligent intuitive interfaces that are embedded in all kinds of objects and an environment that is capable of recognising and responding to the presence of different individuals in a seamless, unobtrusive and often invisible way.’[11] This ultimately became the smartphone. In that year, Wikipedia was born and empowered citizens to generate and curate their own understandings of the world. By cooperative working this new encyclopaedia altered the public’s relationship to knowledge. Previously knowledge was produced through rigorous research and disseminated through publications. At each stage professional ethics ensured the veracity of the information presented to the public. This was now swept aside, as the value of a piece of information became increasingly determined by the speed with which it could be located. Its veracity, or rather its believability, could be determined by social debate in forums. With the birth of Flickr in 2004, the museum’s expensive, arcane and segmented bespoke image databases looked increasingly unfit for the public. Some museums began to use Flickr almost immediately, at least to advertise their presence in cyberspace. Finally, the launch of Twitter and Facebook in 2006, and the introduction of Apple’s iPhone a year later, contributed to pushing society into living within that thin slice of time we know as the contemporary. 

The information society was now truly realised but in a form that empowered social media companies in ways that had not been envisaged. In 2017, many commentators in the West were observing that the digital revolution had followed the course of all revolutions: new freedoms had been followed by a power grab. In this case, the idealism of a non-capitalistic technology for all had delivered an online world dominated by the questionable ethics of global capitalism and which empowered a handful of tech companies who were seen to be involved in controlling our lives. The cover of the January issue of Wired magazine in 2018 carried the headline ‘The Internet is broken’. This was not journalistic hyperbole. In the following months, the entanglement of conservative America with Facebook and malicious cyber activity by the British company Cambridge Analytica and Russian government became an international sensation. The Internet had given birth to Big Data which possessed previously unseen potential for creating psychological profiles of citizens and statistically determining traits that they had never revealed online. This data had then been used to manipulate the behaviours of electorates in many parts of the world, and particularly in the USA. Established as a ‘creative commons’, the Internet had unwittingly brought into being an Orwellian world of continual surveillance. Orwell’s words now seemed prophetic, though the world that had been created was far more insidious than he had imagined: ‘It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away.’[12]

With the arrival of voice activated intelligent assistants, like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, the psychological disconnection between information and real, evidenced and authoritative knowledge was further weakened. Now knowledge existed in the ether with no clear relationship to its source. Interestingly, it was exactly this circumstance that museums were first invented to address centuries ago.[13] In pre-literate and pre-systematised cultures, myth and superstition took hold in the absence of secure knowledge, reliable authorities, cheap and authoritative media, and the evidence of real things. The digital revolution has returned us to a world of ‘post-truth’, ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’, ‘social media bubbles’ and a rejection of expertise in favour of political rhetoric.[14]

Some museums have failed to recognise the dangers and have joined the disinformation revolution. In 2018, Tate took the decision to abandon the production of its own artists’ biographies and refer its public directly to Wikipedia, a source widely regarded as lacking authority. Given the online availability of numerous rigorous art historical encyclopaedias, or the alternative of not providing biographies at all, its credibility has been damaged: ‘the internet and social media have been flattening discourse to an unprecedented degree for years now, handing mischief-makers, crackpots, and malign actors the same platforms and standing as people who agonize over checking facts and making sound arguments…In a small-scale way, [Tate] is contributing to the erosion of truth and critical thinking in the digital age.’[15] The world of disciplinary knowledge that museums had created and protected, and which underpinned their purpose in the world—of art historians, palaeontologists and archaeologists shaping our consumption of paintings, pterosaurs and potsherds in an informed way—seemed slowly to be dissolving under the pressure of technologies that challenged old flows of knowledge through society. One of these had been the museum. 

The move from authority to access, as being the primary determinant of the utility of a piece of information, also broke the link between knowledge and history because intellectual authority is underpinned by the critical accumulation and deployment of past knowledge. Knowledge has been replaced by a contemporary utility of knowing. Aided by educational reform and the promotion of STEM subjects at the cost of the humanities, society has become increasingly ‘posthistorical’. Art historians have complained that students show a declining interest in history and a growing fascination with contemporary art.[16] History of science departments have also seen a reorientation of interests towards contemporary science ethics and away from historical study. In 2018, it was possible for a child in Finland to pass through the school system without ever studying history. 

If these technological changes push us into the contemporary, they also seem to position the museum as an increasingly necessary institution and not least as a source of rigorous and ethical knowledge. Museums offer material stability that can provide orientation, reassurance, creative focus and even distraction in a rapidly changing world. They can no longer be sites promoting social stasis and imposing hegemonic views. In contemporary museology, the museum’s authority is based on an ethical contract with the public and not simply on its ability to accumulate arcane knowledge. The museum’s role is shaped by the contemporary lens and questions concerning the need of the public today for art, science, ethnology and history. This way of thinking keeps the institution in tune with society—keeps it relevant—and thus, perhaps, keeps it funded. 

Remapping the museum

Technological change heralded a new phase in the globalisation of culture. Global connections had long been mediated by the expert, the institution and the broadcaster. Now these intermediaries were no longer required. Postcolonial discourse in the 1990s had suggested that we doubt them. Now technologies offered to excluded communities the possibility of self-authorship; they had previously had to rely upon disciplinary and economic intermediaries from developed countries. 

There were other changes, not due to technology, that also called for a global reassessment of the cultural hierarchies presented in Western museums. Most important has been the opening up of China, particularly over the last five to seven years, which has produced a flow of tourists and students, as well as exhibitions and objects, into the West. It forced British audiences to rethink geography of the world—a process further encouraged by rising American nationalism and isolationism. Museums played an active part in this by—as Da Kong has described it—planting an image of China in the West.[17] While China’s programme of international exhibitions seems only to involve the flow of historic objects between cities, what is being imported into, say, London, is the image of a people, a country and a culture. These arrive not as a packaged commodity sent from China but as an entanglement with existing British notions of that country accumulated over centuries but also in recent popular media like film. China is in this sense a lived entity rather than one contained within an exhibition narrative or catalogue. Seen from the West—and this is something that will soon be forgotten—China has reappeared after a long hiatus. China had modernised almost out of sight. It had rarely appeared in recent British thought but now it seemed to be in every conversation and visible in every British town and city. Rather than reflecting the geography of the atlas, the psychology of global relationships and understanding is shaped in this way in complex, asymmetrical and ephemeral performances. 

But the reappearance of China is important not simply in terms of its own visibility but because it introduced an alternative world into Western systems of knowledge. It is not that the West did not know and understand Chinese history, or that modern Chinese culture is vastly different Western culture (it is not), but rather that it challenged Western conceptions of the world order and thus ways of looking and thinking, ideas of relative value and systems of knowledge organisation. The West (and this would be true of Asian countries too), had long accommodated distant and alien cultures through an objectifying and diminishing process of Othering.[18] The subject of widespread criticism by cultural relativists for many decades, it lived on in some disciplines, like art history, where a hegemonic Western view was seen as representing an irrefutable truth. In this discipline Western methods and mantras had been disseminated into disciplinary practices worldwide as being neutral and transcendent rather than as expressions of cultural nationalism.[19] This act of intellectual blinkering has made it easy to construct critical discourses that diminish and deny the artistic practices of other cultures. Today, art historians around the world are writing corrective art histories while others continue to promote a universalising and imperial notion of world art history.[20] Fragmentation into multiple locally produced art histories deploying local methods and perspectives offer an enrichment of world culture; something that Bennett and others argue is one of the benefits of alterity—the state of being different.[21]This kind of open cultural relativism is key to the museum metamorphosis that is needed to remap the world, the nation, the city and the discipline: to include, empower and enable.[22] This acts to counter the dangers of globalisation: homogenisation, Westernisation and cultural erasure. Cohesive societies require ‘human scale’ enrichment,  diversity and opportunities for creativity. Museums have the capacity to work at this level. 

Core to this museum work are those professional ethics that were central to the flow of knowledge in society in the pre-digital era. Particularly in areas of social, ethnic, national or cultural difference, where digital technological bubbles have a tendency to be used to represent oppositional positions. If Web presences are museological forms of representation, they differ from the real museum due to the lack of inherent ethical modifiers. This was seen in work done around Lake Prespa on the border between Greece, Albania and Macedonia. A region of political tension, it was only where professionals were involved that projects developed positively across ethnic lines. Institutional professionals here built bridges; unmediated online spaces rarely did this.[23]

As a curatorial practice, the idea of mediation seems to hark back to professional ideals of neutrality and objectivity, but this is not the case. There is no doubt that mediation involves control, but this is motivated by an ethics of engagement rather than a desire to impose a worldview. There have been many extraordinary examples of this kind of mediation in small museums in Australia in recent years. For example, it was only with arrival of a professional curator at Fairfield Museum in Sydney, in the most ethnically diverse communities in Australia, that this conservative ‘pioneer museum’ introduced programmes that celebrated diversity and built community cohesion. Similarly, in New South Wales, two curators at the Library Museum at Albury tackled small town racism using activities what bridged communities and permitted an understanding of difference but also of common humanity. In both cases these were innovations by young, female curators working in non-cosmopolitan communities.[24] I shall return to this a little later for I believe gender transformation in the profession has played an important role in modernising the museum’s social function.

Australia is particularly important for understanding these kinds of negotiation. Possessing a dark history of racism that has had a devastating effect on the Indigenous population and resulted in a succession of controversial immigration and asylum policies, Australia’s negotiations of difference are both challenging but also potentially inspirational. Andrea Witcomb has shown that attitudes that stereotype and objectify, and permit the development and deployment of racism, can be disarmed in the museum using empathy.[25] At the Migration Museum in Melbourne multimedia touch tables put the visitor in contact with individuals who have recently immigrated to Australia. Similar technology is used in New Zealand and Singapore. It turns a category—a Somali, an immigrant, an Other—into a person with whom the visitor now opens a dialogue. This is a mediated exchange—though the mediation is not apparent—which avoids the difficulties that might arise in a real-world meeting. The visitor feels an irresistible sense of empathy and common humanity which serves not only to humanise the individual display but to make comprehensible a whole category of being. The museum, here, is acting to share a different ethics for living.

Something similar was necessary when the National Museum of New Zealand was ‘decolonised’ in the 1980s and 1990s and reborn as Te Papa. This required Māori assertiveness and calls for biculturalism but also for the Pākehā (European) population to embrace a new ethical relationship. Te Papa became a representation but also a place of on-going negotiation. This debate and the development of what has become known as ‘Indigenous museology’ has fundamentally altered museum approaches to Indigenous material culture in their collections both in settler countries and in Europe.[26]

In these examples, museums have confronted difficult issues head on and used professional skills to use the power of the museum to build bridges. But bridges can also be built through acts of avoidance—or rather, simply in the act of making contact and sharing. International exhibitions of aesthetic objects from the Islamic world, for example, have been shown around the world as a counter to Islamic terrorism. Yet they make not mention of this relationship—it is only implicitly understood.[27] Through these exhibitions, Western audiences increase their contact with Islamic society and in their mutual understanding of beauty the realise their common humanity. This distancing of cultural materials from the real world suggests a resistance to open debate. It seems opposed to our contemporary need to talk. It is, however, a quite common but largely unobserved aspect of the museum performance. Indeed, museums became established provincial Britain two hundred years ago in circumstances of public unrest. The fashion for knowledge about the prehistoric world meant that fossils in the museum performed a bridging function bringing elites together from different parts of the community.[28] These simple objects contributed to keeping society together. We sometimes think of the achievements of the museum too literally; much happens implicitly as an implication of exchanges. Histories of museums can be myopic, seeing only the material things that survive. Museums are, however, primarily about people but rarely are those people its subject. 

Recalibrating time

Philosophically, there is nothing new in positioning the contemporary as the location where the past is constructed. It does not require the abandonment of history or historiography, or a simplistic or naïve encounter with the past; it can embrace psychological, philosophical and theoretical understandings of the past and of time, without abandoning a sense that that past is researchable. What is important in this perspective for contemporary museology is that a presentist approach recognises that the past does not exist in a different time; it exists only in the contemporary, in our thoughts, experiences and relationships. It empowers us over the past by recognising that histories are political and have been written to be operational in the present. This weakens the grip of ideological bias, disciplinary legacies and authoritarian narratives, for we recognise that each is authored and to some extent political. 

This, of course, is apparent to all historians, but museums tend to hide it from their publics. Museums in Stockholm seem to be less circumspect. They seem more willing to credit their publics with intelligence. At Historiska Museet, the prehistory gallery is a rather traditional archaeological display full of ‘sacred’ and ‘status’ objects. On exiting this space, however, the visitor enters a ‘departure lounge’ where archaeology as a discipline is deconstructed and understood as contingent on the moment and disciplinary norms. Here the audience is exposed to questions about the nature of gender, family and life that come from the present, but the museum asks the visitor to apply these questions to the past, to the objects on display. The visitor is now empowered to make up his or her own mind. To consider how little we know about the past and the rather arcane methods archaeologists use to fill that void.  In a manner peculiar to Stockholm’s museums—and also found in Nordiska Museet, an ethnology museum—a sense of common humanity is used here to bridge time.[29]

This letting go of disciplinary frameworks seems appropriate to the contemporary—to a world we seek to negotiate. It is an approach applied by contemporary theatre groups in Malta, who in their performances in museums and other historic sites explore the liminal space between past and present, and apply contemporary experiences of different kinds to act as lenses on the past and generate new meanings.[30] This produces a sense of the past that is emotive, empathetic, intangible, inquisitive and questioning, and quite different from the museum’s typical didactic historical literalism.

The contemporary is used in these museums to challenge the idea of monolithic and canonical histories. It suggests that history is a constant negotiation with the past and composed a series of transient and often quite personal moments. This approach challenges the idea that the museum is only based on acts of preservation. Indeed, in their engagements with contemporary art museums have begun to deal with the ephemeral.[31] Stacy Boldrick has argued that these artistic engagements expose the museum as a set of expectations, relationships and discourses by their refusal to conform and by museum attempts to find some level of conformity. They signify the power of the present to challenge a conception of the museum as necessarily an instrument of concrete and canonical representation. Indeed, they might be used to doubt that there is much permanence in the museum at all.

This idea of impermanence is problematic for anyone one who wishes to instrumentalise the museum for partisan political ends, as has happened recently in Hungary.[32] In Mexico, this has been a common occurrence: ‘In a country characterised by political and social instability, historical museums and exhibitions continue to be an important asset in the struggle for legitimacy.’[33] Here, the past as a constructed narrative exists only as a transitory experience. Each new social and political reality demands a new reading of the past. While this might seem to challenge our ideas about the museums as sites of stable and canonical history, the mutability of the past—the ability to repeatedly develop and manipulate it—has been an important justification for the proliferation of temporary exhibitions. Initially, these were used to build a canonical view and to enable dead national artists to continue to compete internationally as they were deified.[34]Increasingly, however—and not least for marketing purposes—temporary exhibitions have been used to reconsider, renarrate and reinterpret. In other words, to reimagine the past and to do so for us, now.[35]

Locating us

It is often stated that women’s work is best when it accepts the limitations of their sex and is most feminine; but that by being feminine it has never scaled the upper reaches of achievement in art and presumably never will.[36]

Central to the assaults on traditional disciplinarity in the late twentieth century were arguments against the modernist assumption that human knowledge can be universalised and that it is ever truly ‘disinterested’. This universalist position saw as corrupting influences such things as economics, gender, race and nation. It sought to avoid this corruption by simply ignoring them but as the quote above by British sculptor, Barbara Hepworth, reveals and as art historians subsequently discovered, it was the act of ignoring that led to these corrupting influences taking hold. If you turn your back against something you cannot defend against it. 

Hepworth lived long enough to see these ideas challenged—at least in  terms of the role of women in art— but as recent events have shown the problem is not yet resolved and in the United States social progress seems to be in reverse gear. The museum profession of the future—and in many countries this is already the case—will be largely female. For the past two decades, substantially more women than men have sought museum training.  This future was foretold in Hooper-Greenhill’s vision for rebirth of the museum written twenty years ago: ‘The development of the post-museum will represent a feminisation of the museum. Rather than upholding the values of objectivity, rationality, order and distance, the post-museum will negotiate responsiveness, encourage mutually nurturing partnerships, and celebrate diversity.’[37] Many of the developments we have seen in recent years could not have taken place without this change in the profession.

If there is one area of museum practice where Britain can claim to have taken a lead it is in matters of social justice and inclusion. Work in the area of disability, for example, has moved from issues of access two decades ago to support for disability rights today. It is a transformation from viewing disabled people solely as potential audience members to being ‘a constituency with histories, cultures and experiences that merit attention and inclusion in museum narratives’.[38] This work shares a commonality of feeling, values and ambitions that can be found in many areas of contemporary museum practice and theorisation. Today, some see the museum as a site for rights activism. Others argue for the museum to be a place of philosophical reorientation. Both argue against uses of the museum that indoctrinate the population with repressive worldviews of the kind Hepworth experienced.

Increasingly, museums have confronted difficult and controversial subjects, including prostitution, poverty,gender, sex and sexual disease. These have involved engagements with cultural worlds previously considered illegitimate or subject to censorship. At the Amsterdam Museum, for example, a number of exhibitions have considered the city’s famous Red Light District. These exhibitions gave a voice to sex workers, and revealing to the public the complex of circumstances and consequences associated with prostitution. Rather than replicate the touristic gaze, curators used the museum as a point of contact and negotiation.[39] In some ways similar, the Museum of Vancouver organised the exhibition, Sex Talk in the City, in 2013. It is doubtful, for a variety of reasons, that either exhibition could been produced without women taking the lead. The Museum of Vancouver is in many respects the embodiment of the idea of the contemporary museum. It does not simply represent contemporary values, it lives them. They permeate every aspect of its institutional being.[40]


The examples given above serve to explain the nature of contemporary museology but also those factors that have led to its emergence. Whether museums truly understood this epistemological shift in the world seems doubtful. The global contemporary is a museological age, for we have replaced the need for historical authentication and legitimisation with a freeform need to curate the cultural resources that surround us. Culture, which had been understood through a succession of styles and fashions, now exists only in contemporary time. There was no development, no sense of progress, only a desire to arrange, a tendency that had emerged from postmodernism’s need to quote. Everyone became a curator and everything was to be curated.[41] Contemporary museology is an approach to the subject that seeks to meet the ethical requirements of life in the global contemporary. I will end with a quote from the contemporary art historian, Terry Smith. We might ignore that it is a comment about art and take it to refer to museums and to the need for contemporary museology: ‘Many emerging artists sense that Modernism…is past its use-by date. They regard ‘Postmodern’ as an outmoded term…Their youth means that they have inherited the successes and shortcomings of the political struggles of the 1960s and 1970s—from anti-colonialism to feminism—and now seek to relate these lessons to the even greater challenges of living in the conditions of contemporaneity. Emergent artists are focused on questions arising from this challenge: questions as to the shapes of time, place, media, and mood in the world today.[42]

[1] KNELL, Simon. ‘Introduction: The museum in the global contemporary’, in Simon KNELL (ed.) The Contemporary Museum: Shaping Museums for the Global Now. London, Routledge, 1-10, 2019 (released September 2018).

[2] HOOPER-GREENHILL, Eilean. Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, London, Routledge, 2000, 151-2. HOOPER-GREENHILL, Eilean. Museums and Education: Purpose, Pedagogy, Performance, London, Routledge, 2007.

[3] KNELL, Simon. ‘Museums, reality and the material world’, in Simon KNELL (ed.), Museums in the Material World, London, Routledge, 2007, 1-28.

[4] Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 28-44.

[5] For the effects of bureaucracies on the museum, see KIM, Yon Jai. ‘The making of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), South Korea, 1969-2016’, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Leicester, 2018. 

[6] In applying this term like this, as a Zeitgeist, I should acknowledge that the phrase was originally used, in a very different way, to describe global contemporary art. The exhibition, The Global Contemporary: Art Worlds After 1989, was shown at ZKM Museum of Contemporary Art in Karlsruhe in 2011-2012. See essays in BELTING, Hans, BUDDENSIEG, Andrea and WEIBEL, Peter (eds) The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds, ZKM, Karlsruhe/MIT, Cambridge, Mass., 2013. The ‘global contemporary’ was used in that book to express the peculiar characteristics of art in the early twenty-first century. Many of these characteristics can be applied more generally to life and culture, and thus shape the role of the museum. I first used the term as a more general Zeitgeist in preparations for the fiftieth anniversary conference of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester in April 2016. The conference was called The Museum in the Global Contemporary.

[7] KNELL, Simon. ‘The shape of things to come: museums in the technological landscape’, Museum and Society 1(3), 132-46, 2003. US Information Infrastructure Task Force (USIIFT). National Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action, Washington, D.C., National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, 1993. European Commission. Technological Landscapes for Tomorrow’s Cultural Economy: Unlocking the Value of Cultural Heritage, DigiCULT Report, Luxembourg, Official Publications of European Communities, 2002.

[8] For an account of these developments, see PARRY, Ross. Recoding the Museum: Digital Heritage and the Technologies of Change, London, Routledge, 2007.

[9] MACINTYRE, S. and CLARK, A. The History Wars, Melbourne, Melbourne University Publishing, 2003. GULLIFORD, Andrew. ‘Bones of contention: the repatriation of Native American human remains’, The Public Historian, 18(4), 119-43, 1996. TRACHTENBERG, Alan. ‘Contesting the West’, Art in America, 79(9), 118-23.  KNELL. ‘Museums, reality and the material world’.

[10] See, for example, the battle to control geological heritage: KNELL, Simon. ‘Collecting, conservation and conservatism: late twentieth century developments in the culture of British geology’, in David R. OLDROYD (ed.), The Earth Inside and Out, London, Geological Society Special Publication 192, 229-51, 2002.

[11] Ducatel, K. et al. ISTAG: Scenarios for Ambient Intelligence in 2010, Brussels, European Commission, 2001.

[12] ORWELL, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. London, Secker and Warburg, chapter 5, 1949.

[13] Francis BACON described the ‘Idols’ his rational scientific method sought to counter in his Novum Organum (1620). The world he sought to escape was much like that that surrounds us now. His inductive method underpinned the birth of the modern museum two centuries later.

[14] BAKER, David. ‘Start again’, Wired, January, 120-9, 2018.

[15] SCHNEIDER, Tim. ‘The Gray Market: Why Tate’s Wikipedia-supplied artist biographies are more than just embarrassing (and other insights), artnet news, 17 September 2018.

[16] MAINARDI, Patricia. ‘The crisis in art history’, Visual Resources, 27(4), 303-7, 2011.

[17] Kong, Da. ‘Diplomacy: Museums and international exhibitions’, in KNELL, Contemporary Museum, 88-101.

[18] RAPPORT, Nigel and OVERING, Joanna. ‘Alterity’, Social and Cultural Anthropology: Key Concepts, London, Routledge, 9-16, 2000.

[19] See, for example, the ‘dark conclusion’ in ELKINS, James. Stories of Art, New York, Routledge, 147-52, 2002. KAUFMANN, Thomas DaCosta, DOSSIN, Catherine and JOYEUX-PRUNEL, Béatrice. Circulations in the Global History of Art, London, Routledge, 2015.

[20] KNELL, Simon. ‘Modernisms: Curating art’s past in the global present’, in KNELL, Contemporary Museum, 13-36.

[21] BENNETT, Tony, GROSSBERG, Lawrence and MORRIS, Meaghan. New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Oxford, Blackwell, 2005.

[22] See, for example, KNELL, ‘Modernisms’.

[23] MYLRIVILI, Eleni. ‘Transnational, museum-like, online’, in Simon Knell (ed.), Crossing Borders: Connecting European Identities in Museums and Online, EuNaMus Report 2, Linköping University Press, 2012.

[24] Australian Research Council project, Collecting institutions, cultural diversity and the making of citizenship in Australia since the 1970s. Principal investigators: Andrea Witcomb, Kylie Message, Ian McShane. Co-investigators: Simon Knell and Arne Bugge Amundsen, 2014.

[25] WITCOMB, Andrea. ‘Toward a pedagogy of feeling: understanding how museums creat a space for cross-cultural encounters’, in Andrea Witcomb and Kylie Message (eds), Museum Theory, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 321-44, 2015. WITCOMB, Andrea. ‘Xenophobia: Museums, refugees and fear of the other’, in KNELL, Contemporary Museum, 74-87.

[26] MCCARTHY, Conal. Exhibiting Māori: A History of Colonial Cultures of Display, Oxford, Berg, 2007. MCCARTHY, Conal. Museums and Māori: Heritage Professionals, Indigenous Collections, Current Practice, London, Routledge, 2011. MCCARTHY, Conal. Te Papa: Reinventing New Zealand’s National Museum 1998-2018, Wellington, Te Papa, 2018. MCCARTHY, Conal. ‘Indigenisation: reconceptualising museology’, in KNELL, Contemporary Museum, 37-54.

[27] JUNOD, Benoit et al. (eds). Islamic Art and the Museum, London, Saqi, 2012. REEVE, John. ‘Islam: Islamic art, the Islamic world – and museums’, in KNELL, Contemporary Museum, 55-73.

[28] KNELL, Simon. The Culture of English Geology 1815-1851: A Science Revealed Through Its Collecting, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2000.

[29] KNELL, Simon. ‘National museums and the national imagination’, in KNELL, Simon et al. (eds), National Museums: New Studies from around the World, London, Routledge, 2011.

[30] TURNER, Victor. ‘Frame, flow, and reflection: Ritual and drama as public liminality’, in M. Benamou and C. Caramello (eds), Performance in Postmodern Culture, University of Wisconsin, 33-55, 1977. BURKE, Peter. The Fabrication of King Louis XIV, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1992. JACKSON, Anthony and KIDD, Jenny (eds). Performing Heritage: Research, Practice and Innovation in Museum Theatre and Live Interpretation, Manchester University Press, 2011. DELIA, Romina. ‘Performances: Contemporary encounters in historic spaces’, in KNELL, Contemporary Museum, 128-41. 

[31] BOLDRICK, Stacy. ‘Transience: Curating ephemeral art’, in KNELL, Contemporary Museum, 105-27.

[32] KNELL, Simon. National Galleries: The Art of Making Nations, London, Routledge, 2016.

[33] MARRONI, Cintia Velázquez. ‘Pasts: Authoring national histories in the contemporary city’, in KNELL, Contemporary Museum, 152-66.

[34] HASKELL, Francis. The Ephemeral Museum: Old Master Paintings and the Rise of the Art Exhibition, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000.

[35] FISHER, Philip. Making and Effacing Art: Modern American Art in a Culture of Museums, Cambridge, M.A., Harvard University Press, 1991.

[36] HEPWORTH, Barbara, unpublished manuscript from the 1950s, in BOWNESS, Sophie (ed.), Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, London, Tate, 131, 2017.

[37] HOOPER-GREENHILL, Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, 153.

[38] SANDELL, Richard. ‘Disability: Museums and our understandings of difference’, in KNELL, Contemporary Museum, 169-84. SANDELL, Richard et al., Buried in the Footnotes: The Representation of Disabled People in Museums and Gallery Collections, University of Leicester, RCMG, 2004.

[39] DE WILDT, Annemarie. ‘Contact: Framing prostitution in a city museum’, in KNELL, Contemporary Museum, 185-200.

[40] GOSSELIN, Viviane. ‘Small wins: tactics for the contemporary museum’, in KNELL, Contemporary Museum, 201-14.

[41] David Balzer. Curationism, Pluto Press, 2014.

[42] SMITH, Terry. Contemporary Art: World Currents. London, Lawrence King Publishing, 11, 2011.

Source: Accepted manuscript for paper in Mandarin: Simon Knell, ‘Contemporary museology‘, in Yang Jin (ed.) Opening and Sharing: New Research on Museology Theory and Practice, trans. Yang Jin, (Beijing: People’s Publishing House,  2018), 3-18.(西蒙—奈尔著,杨瑾译:《当代博物馆学》,载杨瑾主编:《开放与共享:博物馆学理论与实践新探索》,人民出版社2018年第3-18页)