The Contemporary Museum: Shaping Museums for the Global Now


Simon Knell (ed.) The Contemporary Museum: Shaping Museums for the Global Now (London: Routledge, 2019 [2018]).


The Contemporary Museum issues a challenge to those who view the museum as an artefact of history, constrained in its outlook by professional, institutional and disciplinary creed and by the collections it has accumulated. Denying that the museum can locate its purpose in the pursuit of tradition or in idealistic speculation about the future, the book asserts that this can only be found through an ongoing and proactive negotiation with the present: the contemporary. This book is not concerned with any present but with the peculiar circumstances of what I refer to as the ‘global contemporary’ – the sense of living in a globally connected world that is preoccupied with the contemporary. To situate the museum in this world of real and immediate need and action, beyond the reach of history, I argue, is to empower it to challenge existing dogmas and inequalities and sweep aside old hierarchies. As a result, fundamental questions need to be asked about such things as the museum’s relationship to global time and space, to systems and technologies of knowing, to ‘the life well lived’, to the movement and rights of people, and to the psychology, permanence and organisation of culture. In this volume, I engage leading scholars and professionals from around the world in thinking about the nature of the contemporary museum: its values and its practices. This thinking is further developed in my next book: The Museum’s Borders: On the Challenge of Knowing and Remembering Well.


Free access to accepted manuscript version for chapter 1 via chapter link below. For finished chapter please access and reference the published version.


Simon Knell: Introduction: The museum in the global contemporary

Now we live, I argue, in what might be regarded as ‘the global contemporary’: a sense of living in a globally connected world that is preoccupied with that thin slice of time that is the contemporary. In applying this term like this, as a Zeitgeist, I should acknowledge that the phrase was originally used to describe contemporary art. In this book, I am using ‘the global contemporary’ differently, not to refer to contemporary art but to contemporary time and to this sense of globalised and contemporary living that began to emerge in 2006 and which has grown in intensity since then. 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 existed 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.

Part I: A World of Equals
1 Simon Knell: Modernisms: Curating art’s past in the global present

The disciplinary practices and worldviews museums preserve and curate, possess deep inertia as a result of ideological foundations born in the Enlightenment that suggest that they possess a neutral and objective universalism. This chapter explores the extent to which art history is a potential and actual force for cultural imperialism and cultural homogenisation which has led to geographical discrimination in art and a sense that a Paris-centred art world was the source of all originality. Even today, many Western attempts to globalise art history incorporate the mindset of the cultural imperialist, causing historians of Indian art, for example, to rise up in opposition. Reflecting on the development of art in the twentieth century and the role of the museum as a canonical institution, I argue for a situated understanding of art that values local and national cultures of production and consumption. 

2 Conal McCarthy: Indigenisation: Reconceptualising museology

Conal’s work has long been concerned with the Indigenous presence in museums, particularly in New Zealand. In this book, he looks more broadly at those countries that were, like his own, once part of the British Empire and which in their museum practices are still adjusting to the legacies of colonialism. As Conal observes, New Zealand’s journey has been more successful due in part to the relatively large size of the Māori population and to the existence of legal documents dating back to the beginnings of European colonisation. It was Māori assertiveness and calls for biculturalism, together with sympathetic European voices that demanded the decolonisation of the country, that in the mid 1980s brought about the reinvention of the National Museum of New Zealand. 

3 John Reeve: Islam: Islamic art, the Islamic world – and museums

John’s chapter applies yet another lens to the world again exposing tensions in the way museums represent global diversity. His interest is the world’s religions and specifically the place of Islam in the museum. In his chapter, he travels the world comparing museum performances, some of which are a response to contemporary political tensions and others that reflect new museum developments in Islamic countries. As John explains, tensions and difficulties have arisen not least from a desire to conceal the contemporary behind a veil of aesthetics and beauty. 

4 Andrea Witcomb: Xenophobia: Museums, refugees and fear of the other

In her chapter, Andrea discusses museums that put the visitor in empathetic mode. She examines the ways museums in Australia have positioned the modern refugee. The refugee is another jigsaw piece in the global contemporary – an expression of it. Few countries are more significant in terms of understanding the political complexities of immigration, refugees and ethnic difference. 

5 Da Kong: Diplomacy: Museums and international exhibitions

Da’s (Linda’s) chapter finds common understanding through the mobility of objects. In Linda’s exhibitions a subject people become imagined through cultural exchanges. These build a relationship through a sharing of treasures, in other words through a common endeavour and act of generosity. China’s use of international exhibitions shows how museums have become entangled in the politics of promoting other cultures. As she explains, this does not result from the direct interference of government or the sending of propaganda abroad but from museum desires to build connections, collaborate and celebrate world culture. 

Part II: Present Pasts
6 Stacy Boldrick: Transience: curating ephemeral art

Stacy’s essay examines how artistic practice philosophically and practically challenges the material premise of the museum. It is not simply that the showing institution does not collect the artwork but that sometimes the artwork ceases to exist completely. Stacy argues 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 are powerful statements of the power of the present that challenge a conception of the museum as necessarily an instrument of concrete and canonical representation.

7 Romina Delia: Performances: Contemporary encounters in historic spaces

Romina’s work is concerned with the use of contemporary art and particularly contemporary theatre to produce liminal space between present and past, where experiences of different kinds become operational in the construction of meaning. These works use the contemporary to produce a sense of the past that is emotive, intangible, inquisitive and questioning, and quite different from museum’s usual didactic historical literalism. 

8 Annette Loeseke: Transhistoricism: Using the past to critique the present

The idea of transhistoricism, of behaviours and meanings transcending historical boundaries, provides the motivation for Annette’s study of museums in Berlin. Like others who might see aestheticised exhibitions and canonical narratives as a form of dishonesty and obfuscation, she asks museums to be more honest about their political role in world. It is a provocative notion akin to an institutional act of public disrobing, for these museums project themselves as neutral sites of knowledge, culture and entertainment.

9 Cintia Velázquez Marroni: Pasts: Authoring national histories in the contemporary city

Cintia shows the extent to which the politics of the present are shaping the writing of the past. Her study focuses on Mexico and particularly Mexico City. As she concludes, ‘In a country characterised by political and social instability, historical museums and exhibitions continue to be an important asset in the struggle for legitimacy.’ 

Part III: Who We Are
10 Richard Sandell: Disability: Museums and our understanding of difference

The transformation from viewing disabled people as potential audience members to being ‘a constituency with histories, cultures and experiences that merit attention and inclusion in museum narratives’ has been of profound importance to rethinking the museum as an enquiry into what it is to be human. Richard’s explorations of museum encounters with marginalised cultures resonate with the arguments made by many authors in this book. Richard argues that we now need to see the museum as a site of rights activism as well as those who argue for the museum to be a place of philosophical reorientation.

11 Annemarie de Wildt: Contact: Framing prostitution in a city museum

In her account of exhibitions examining prostitution at the Amsterdam Museum, Annemarie brings the perspective of an enquiring practitioner. This is grounded discussion of the professional, practical and philosophical approaches and challenges of taking on a subject that many museums would consider to hot to handle. Annemarie discusses how she designed these exhibitions to give the sex workers a voice – to de-objectify the prostitute – and how she turned the museum into a new encounter – a contact zone – between a subject and an audience, and opened up the opportunity to research public responses to prostitution. 

12 Viviane Gosselin: Small Wins: Tactics for the contemporary museum

Viviane’s chapter is an expansive account of how deeply and fundamentally Vancouver Museum has been shaped by its contemporary situation and by a desire to have real effect on the world around it. Using the idea of small wins, the museum’s staff demonstrate profound pragmatism that enables them to face up to contemporary challenges. This is a museum that is truly and fundamentally engaged: it is acting in the world. It is a participant.

13 Jennifer Walklate: Anxiety: Unease in the museum

Jen argues against the museum merely being an affirmative space that conceals the world’s realities behind a performance that blinkers, silences and beautifies. Here she focuses on a particular and peculiar psychological response that is not discussed in museum circles but which plays an important role in other forms of communication: the novel, film, music and so on. Quoting Marcuse she observes ‘”By exhibiting the beautiful as present, art pacifies rebellious desire.” Once more, fantasy is evoked to render anxiety mute.’