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

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Monograph (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, Knell 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 discourses in Europe and China, and the remembering of contested pasts in the Balkans, Knell argues for the importance of museums in countering unethical, nationalistic, post-fact political discourse. Using the principles of Knell’s ‘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. The book is of relevance to students and academics engaged in the study of museums and heritage, art history, science studies, cultural studies, anthropology, memory studies and history, as well as to museum professionals seeking to adopt non-discriminatory practices.

Simon Knell The Museum’s Borders: On the Challenge of Knowing and Remembering Well (London: Routledge, 2021), 197pp.


1. Border violence, democracy and museums examines the Windrush scandal and discusses both the role museums can play in countering state violence and the critical importance of these institutions for open democracies.


2. The border lens reflects on intellectual developments in Border Studies and how these provide valuable tools for those studying and working in museums. An introductory chapter it explains that this book is not so much about territorial borders as borders constructed in knowledge and memory.


3. From ethical borders to border force uses the examples of disciplinary practices in the natural sciences and art history to examine the ethical basis for the museum being conceived as a truth institution, before reflecting on the rise of expertise shifting its role from locating truths to legitimising worldviews.

4. The museum’s ethical rebordering uses the example of museum responses to Black artists in the United States to examine how and why museums erect social and cultural borders; how museums project and legitimise borders. The chapter argues that ‘border thinking’ throws a new lens on these issues and it ends by examining the slow embrace of ‘multiculturalism’ by art museums.


5. The borders of historical truth compares the practices of editing national histories in national history museums in Sweden, Finland, Hungary and China, to reveal how each rendition of the past is wrapped in ideology. That the desire to project an ideological position fashions the truth.

6. Border armouries, walls and crossings looks at the performances of museums on the Balkan Peninsula, showing how truths are shaped around borders, ensuring those borders are projected onto the past and the future.


7. Contemporary museology looks in more detail at the emergence of the Zeitgeist, the global contemporary, by reflecting on the effects of technological change. It concludes on the key facets of this approach to the museum.

8. Knowing and remembering well draws particularly on museum practices in Sweden to propose that contemporary museology is composed of four essential components that together permit these institutions to contribute to knowing and remembering well. These are: the lens of contemporary, the situatedness of experience, people as authors and subjects, and knowledge transparency.

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