Museums, Territory and Representation

Simon Knell

Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities made connections between the national imagination and three connected methods for rationalising the world: surveys, maps and museums.[1] Museums are implicitly maps because collecting requires cognisance of time and space; objects were assumed to represent chronotopes, to use Bahktin’s term.[2] The museum was invented to be memory and map. It superimposed a Cartesian rationalism on the chaos of Nature with the aim not simply of ordering but of empowering society.

This continues to be visible even today in the work of museum natural scientists, historians, archaeologists and art historians. This desire to map and order is shared by widely different fields whether they are concerned with the distribution of plants, rocks, ancient sites, economic products or social conditions. In the early twentieth century, the Japanese used museums to map and arrange economic produce and resources in their newly occupied colonies.[3] In Britain, in the 1970s, museum biologists and geologists undertook habitat mapping programmes as they reinvented themselves as environmental conservationists. This museum work spread through international networks to contribute to global maps of biodiversity.[4] The geographical division of art was closely tied to the establishment of public art museums and the new problems of locating a logic for mass display.[5] Initially this reflected influence and patronage but it subsequently played into the hands of those who saw art treasures as materials for cultural nationalism.[6] In archaeology displays in South Korea, China and elsewhere, ancient material culture contributes political maps recording the presence of a national or ethnic culture which in turn leads to a national claim on territory.[7]

However, in a consideration of territory it is necessary to look beyond the museum as being merely a cartographic device. Museums contribute in multiple ways.[8] High culture is important to the construction of the nation and its preservation contributes to the nation’s substance and permanence – to its reality.[9] In Europe, where nation making has been accompanied by territorial expansion and colonisation, and subsequent retraction, nations possess a complex relationship to land. Territory here is a palimpsest recording waves of cultural influence. Often that palimpsest preserves remnants of former national populations now surviving as enclaves in the neighbouring country. These are sometimes used as justifications for further annexation. Russia has repeatedly used this as an excuse to annex neighbouring territories. In the Soviet era, Russia learned the power of manipulating the demographic makeup of populations so as to disempower local politics and impose its will on a territory. Fuelled by political ideology, nationalism, colonialism and racism, ethnic manipulation has been practised around the world. Museums are often legitimisers of this new reality, not least because they are built by ideologues, nationalists and colonisers.

Today, borders are once again being asserted and museum professionals are again asking questions about their role in this process.[10] In Europe, the Americas and Australia, the simplistic and divisive rhetoric of popular nationalism can once again be heard. Fuelled by rising economic inequality arising from an uncaring cosmopolitan neoliberalism, a new dystopian reality has appeared which permits overt racism and misogyny, and which is embodied in the presidency of Donald Trump. Compounded by the migration crisis, foreign political interference, economic recession, terrorism, political extremism, and a proliferation of corrupt, inept and authoritarian governments, the museum has often been the voice of moral reason.

Blood, soil and ideology

Where history is contested, national museums are used to evidence historical truths. This may concern many kinds of history, but often there is a territorial relationship – a psychological negotiation regarding the rights of national citizens to occupy a territory. In this respect, national museums can be likened to armouries. For example, during the breakup of Yugoslavia, partisan symbols associated with the Second World War were again powerful. Associated with the Croats who aided the Nazis in slaughtering the Serbs, they were to taunt the old enemy.[11] In Central and Eastern Europe, history is never neutral fact; it remains politically alive, stored up in museums, ready to be loaded into guns.

At the National History Museum in Tirana, Albania, life-sized images of the corpses, along with the clothes, shackles and weapons, contribute a verifiable history in a country that has suffered long periods of ideological dictatorship and political education. The museum is an argument against ideology. The displays are factually evidential and yet powerfully emotive. They affect the national heart though the intention is to affect the head so as to shake out old political fantasies.

At the National Military Museum in Istanbul quite the reverse is true. The whole tone of this museum is one of nationalism, its highlight being the spectacle of a colourful military parade and the singing of patriotic songs. Schools visit in large numbers. Here, too, the Turks deny the Armenian Genocide using a gallery displaying photographs of dead Turks purportedly killed by Armenians. In other displays, the Turkish invasion and annexation of part of Cyprus is presented as a humanitarian exercise.

Something similar is seen at the National Museum of China where photographs of Japanese atrocities during the Second World War are shown uncensored in its exhibition on the history of the nation, The Road of Rejuvenation. Heavily didactic, the exhibition seeks to demonstrate the achievements of the Communist Party and propagate the message that “socialism is the only way to save China.” These rather obvious attempts at indoctrination survive in a country which still has a role for political propaganda, but which also possesses a sophisticated modern population which understands how the state works. Simple indoctrination is unlikely. These technologies were imported from the Soviet Union where they were deployed in art museums across the empire to support a programme of Russification and Marxist indoctrination.[12]

Europeans may look at this use of museums disapprovingly, believing that their museums are not also politically manipulative – that they are merely neutral spaces for knowledge, education and inspiration. But national museums in Europe are very much about a partisan worldview, about national greatness and national identity. It was in Europe that this practice began.

Some of these performances are bewitching: for example, the Viking Ships Museum near Oslo. Cruciform in plan, possessing the architecture of a rural church, with viewing pulpits, this museum holds Norway’s most important cultural objects: three extraordinarily-preserved Viking ships, as well as sledges, textiles and other objects. The ships were found at the beginning of the twentieth century as the Norwegian independence movement reached its culmination. In this setting, even today, they remain some of the most evocative and powerful heritage objects in Europe.

The collecting of these ships occurred not long after the heyday of nationalistic painting. These kinds of painting were produced in nations around the world – including Australia, Norway and Mexico. Despite belonging to the same international tradition and having great similarities, they are separated into national institutions where with careful staging they perform for the nation.[13] These performances have much in common with those to be found in the open-air folk museums which developed in Europe at the same time. They express a deeply held European view that the rural peasant embodies the nation. In periods of occupation, the essences of nationhood, including language and craft, are thought to survive in isolated communities away from colonial centres.[14] In modern Estonia, craft workers use the collections of traditional textiles in the national museum as a basis for their designs. The patterns in these textiles record territorial differences down to the parish level and in doing so preserve the idea that a distinctive and identifiable Estonian nation emerged from the soil.

Countering territorialism

Museums have always been used as political instruments. They have been concerned with explicit representation and more subtle psychological effects. Territorialism feeds off the abstract concepts and politics of group definition that diminish individualism. Maintaining contact with the individual, however, is the most powerful means to counter the overbearing, reductive and ultimately dangerous ideologies of territorialism.

The best European museums for understanding this are to be found in Stockholm. They deconstruct life and disarm the essentialising technology of museums. The ethnological Nordiska Museet, for example, reveals the strangeness of being human. If we understand our strange cultural performances, then we are less likely to be seduced by the fantasies of nationalism. Historiska Museet is perhaps the only museum in the world to deconstruct its own archaeological authority. The knowledge it possesses is shown to be contingent on the moment and no more important than that possessed by the audience. The museum empowers the audience over the discipline and over their own thoughts.

There are other strategies that permit pluralist, negotiated, citizen-led, and even partisan, versions of the past to appear in museums where there are difficult histories. In museums across Australia, the Aboriginal presence is now celebrated as formerly rich cultures that have suffered as a result of colonialism. In the National Museum of Australia, the political voice of the Indigenous population is expressed. The consequences of colonisation, racism and oppression, however, cannot be removed. There is a negotiation of a new reality, but that reality remains troubled. In New Zealand, where the Indigenous population is larger, Te Papa, the national museum, acts to unsettle the certainties of the settler narrative to introduce a view that no population – Māori, European or Asian – should be treated without respect or considered secondary or tertiary.[15]

Similar techniques are used in multicultural Singapore. Here a narrative of confluence and diversity prevails. Each individual shares a story of arrival – an arrival that brings cultural traditions that enrich the state’s multiculturalism. Interpretation is focused on the individual and never on the group. This approach is also used at the Migration Museum in Melbourne, Australia.[16]


While there is a tendency, particularly in Western Europe, to believe that museums and galleries are merely cultural institutions for our pleasure and education, but traveling further afield, even if only into Eastern Europe, reveals museums’ other purposes. Here territories are not secure and histories speak of repeated incursions. For these countries, museums are a form of defence. Museums occupy an important place in representing territories but also in seeking reconciliation and common understanding between territories.[17] National museums and galleries have been established primarily to locate, define and secure the differences between peoples on the basis that people are primarily shaped by the territory they occupy. The European Commission has been interested in funding research in this area because it recognises that national museums need to change, that they need to be places of dialogue and reconciliation. Action is also needed because national museums, which fail to keep up with and represent the changing demographic of the nation, are felt by visitors from national and immigrant minorities to implicitly deny their existence. The museum is seen to preserve and promote an ethnic ideal that no longer represents contemporary truth. These are territorial issues that are performed within the nation, but there is an equivalent problem to be resolved between nations and how they are represented in the museum. Globalisation means that old cultural hierarchies need to be swept aside. It means that many narratives – such as those that describe art history—need to be rewritten as they are based on European chauvinism. These are not simple changes for they challenge the very foundations of disciplinary study.[18] These problems need solutions to be found in ‘contemporary museology’: an orientation to our subject, to our institution and to the past that begins in the globally connected and informed present.[19]

[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition (London: Verso, 2006).

[2] James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-century Ethnography, Literature and Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).

[3] Chi-Jung Chu, “Political change and the national museum in Taiwan,” in National Museums: New Studies from around the World, edited by Simon Knell et al. (London: Routledge, 2011), 180–92.

[4] The national Biological Records Centre was at the heart of a network of local biological records centres. Parallel developments took place in geology. An example of international action is Mexico’s Conabio.

[5] Simon Knell, National Galleries: The Art of Making Nations (London: Routledge, 2016).

[6] Carol Duncan y Wallach Alan, “The universal survey museum,” Art History 3, no. 4 (1980): 448-469.

[7] Koni C. Kim, “Korea as seen through its material culture and museums” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Leicester, 2005). Jeong-eun Lee, “Behind the scenes at the new National Museum of Korea: an investigation of the museum’s role in constructing notions of Korean national identity” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Leicester, 2007). Sang Hoon Jang, “A representation of nationhood: The National Museum of Korea” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Leicester, 2015).

[8] Simon Knell, et al.Crossing Borders: Connecting European Identities in Museums and Online, EuNaMus Report No. 2 (Linköping: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2012). Peter Aronsson, Simon Knell, et al.National Museums Making Histories in a Diverse Europe, EuNaMus Report No. 7 (Linköping: Linköping University Electronic Press, 2012).

[9] John Hutchinson, Modern Nationalism (London: Fontana Press, 1994).

[10] I, for example, have been asked to speak on this subject in Scandinavia, Mexico, China, New Zealand and Australia, and I have been involved in two European and one Australian research project on this topic.

[11] Brian Hall, The Impossible Country (London: Martin Secker & Warburg, 1994).

[12] Knell, National Galleries, 88–90, 173–9.

[13] Knell, National Galleries, 29–47.

[14] Pille Runnel, et al., “Who authors the nation? The debate surrounding the building of the new Estonian National Museum,” in Knell,National Museums, 325–38.

[15] Conal McCarthy, “Indigenisation: Reconceptualising museology,” in The Contemporary Museum, edited by Simon Knell (Londres: Routledge, 2019), 37-54.

[16] Andrea Witcomb, “Xenophobia: Museums, refugees and fear of the other,” in Knell, Contemporary Museum, 74-87.

[17] Da Kong, “Diplomacy: Museums and international exhibitions,” in Knell, Contemporary Museum, 88-101. John Reeve, “Islam: Islamic art, the Islamic world – and museums,” in Knell, Contemporary Museum, 55-73.

[18] Simon Knell, “Modernisms: curating art’s past in the global present,” in Knell, Contemporary Museum, 13-36.

[19] Simon Knell, “The museum in the global contemporary,” in Knell, Contemporary Museum, 1-10.

Source: Accepted manuscript of Simon Knell, ‘Museos, territorio y representación/Museums, territory and representation‘, in Museología Crítica: Temas selectos. Reflexiones desde la Cátedra William Bullock/Critical Museology: Selected Themes. Reflections from the William Bullock Lecture Series (Bilingual), British Council/INBAL/MUAC, Mexico, (2019) 40-9 /228-36.