The Museum’s Borders: On the Challenge of Knowing and Remembering Well


Simon Knell. The Museum’s Borders: On the Challenge of Knowing and Remembering Well (London: Routledge, 2021 [2020]).


The Museum’s Borders demonstrates that museum practices are deeply entangled in border making, patrol, mitigation and erasure, and that the border lens offers a new tool for deconstructing and reconfiguring such practices. Arguing that the museum is a critical institution for the operation of knowledge-based democracies, the book investigates how they have been used by scientists, art historians and historians to construct our bordered world. Examining the role of museums in the Windrush scandal in Britain, the exclusion of Black artists in America, ideological and propaganda based discourses in Europe and China, and the remembering of contested pasts in the Balkans, the book argues for the importance of museums in countering unethical, nationalistic, post-fact political discourse. Using the principles of what I refer to as ‘Contemporary Museology’, The Museum’s Borders considers the significance of the museum for societies that wish to know and remember in ways that empower citizens and build cohesive societies.


One chapter is Open Access via the Museum Worlds journal – see link below. Partial preview on Google Books.


Part I: Prelude
1 Border Violence, Democracy and the Museum [Updated Open Access version of this chapter is available in Museum Worlds 9]

In 2018, museums and libraries across Britain celebrated the seventieth anniversary of the arrival of the first Windrush migrants. These celebrations coincided with the emergence of a national scandal – the Windrush scandal – which revealed the implications of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’. This threaded invisible borders through British society, turning institutions of all kinds into border posts and denying British citizens belonging to the Windrush generation the rights to work, education, healthcare and shelter. This chapter argues that museums, as autonomous institutions with a professional ethical commitment to truth, play a critical role in sustaining knowledge-based democracies. It explores in detail the events and consequences of the Windrush scandal and the institutional racism that it manifested. It provides the reader with an imperative: how can museums enable a state to know and remember well?

Part II: Introduction
2 The Border Lens

Border Studies offers Museum Studies new ways to think about the museum’s role in creating, patrolling, guarding, mitigating and erasing borders. The concept of ‘bordering’ introduces the notion of the border as a liminal zone. This is invaluable for thinking about the borders museums have created, many of which have subsequently been contested. Borders have the power to enact violence against the citizen. This chapter explains that this book is a journey through the changing acts of bordering performed in the museum around knowledge and memory.

Part III: The Borders of Truth
3 From Ethical Borders to Border Force

In the natural sciences, the museum demonstrated the possibility of knowing the world ethically. It was this that gave this institution the status of a truth institution. Other disciplines were variably successful in emulating the natural sciences and some, like art history, while they embraced the same principles, were incapable of establishing the same ethical relationship to their subject matter. And, of course, even the natural sciences in museums had their struggles with ethics. This chapter discusses and problematises these engagements using the concept of bordering. It goes on to consider the implications of expertise, and how this repositioned the museum and knowledge in society; transferring the focus and legitimacy of knowledge into a structure of institutions and careers that demanded the citizen’s obedience. The curator becomes a border guard; the museum a border post. While the museum would continue to claim virtue, it would find itself compromised by institutionalism and transformed from an institution wedded to progress to one mired in intellectual conservatism.

4 The Museum’s Ethical Rebordering

After 1960, museums found themselves repeatedly challenged because of the borders they superimposed on society; borders around race, gender, class, and so on. This challenge called for the museum and the knowledge it promulgated to undergo ethical rebordering. This chapter examines the nature of these borders by attending to the admission of Black artists into the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. This was part of a larger ‘multicultural’ debate in art history. The chapter argues for the language of change to abandon notions of post-this and that, and turns in thinking, and to replace these notions with concepts of the border and bordering so that power relationships, and the liminality of knowledge and memory, can be exposed. The border zone does not articulate a simple binary opposition but a complex of competing and changing positions. The chapter ends by examining the reimagined MoMA of 2019, which seemed at last to embrace changes it had known were necessary some 50 years earlier. The museum had been ethically rebordered.

Part IV: The Borders of Memory
5 The Borders of Historical Truth

This chapter examines and compares exhibitions of national history in national museums in Sweden, Finland, Hungary and China. It dissects the curatorial techniques used to create histories that are wanted rather than empirically true. While China’s open commitment to ideological propaganda is well known, ideology is imprinted on each of these exhibitions. In comparison to the morality of Enlightenment knowledge that has concerned the previous chapters, these narratives show a commitment to the morality of the nation. Each of these narratives, however, also draws upon the virtue of being authored in an Enlightenment institution committed to truth. It reveals how museums use judicious editing to maintain a commitment to truth while at the same time bending that truth to meet ideological needs.

6 Border Armouries, Walls and Crossings

The national history museum is simultaneously a university, library, theatre and monument. It is also an armoury. This chapter examines historical exhibitions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia and considers how in a post-conflict era these museums protect the borders of history (and thus territory). It also explores post-traumatic museum practice in Albania. These museums attempt to present incontestable evidence in their ongoing fight against misinformation and foreign nationalism. Museum objects of all kinds become bricks in the walls of the nation. This chapter considers the evidential nature of the museum object and the influence of the curatorial author. It ends by considering the various ways competition has laid the ground for border crossing activity and for sensing common values and purposes.

Part V: The Borders of Contemporary Living
7 Contemporary Museology

This chapter begins to draw the book to its conclusion. It does so by introducing the concepts of the ‘contemporary museum’, ‘contemporary museology’ and the ‘global contemporary’. Examining technological developments over the last 30 years, the chapter considers how technologies have altered our relationship to time, space and knowledge; how they have rendered a world without ethics, expertise or authority. The chapter repositions the museum in this changing landscape arguing that it gives it renewed purpose: to recover its role as an autonomous truth institution essential to modern democracies. It argues that the principles of contemporary museology offer the recovery of ethical method.

8 Knowing and Remembering Well

This final chapter examines in detail four ideas of contemporary museology: the application of the contemporary as a lens for understanding the world; a commitment to the human actor; understanding the world from a situated perspective; and committing to knowledge transparency. Using examples from around the world and particularly from Sweden, it argues that these four areas of action open the possibility of knowing and remembering well. They should precede any commitment to servicing disciplinary knowledge or identity politics.