Professor Simon Knell

Professor of Contemporary Museology at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, UK

Professor of Contemporary Museology

Contemporary museology is an orientation to the subject which engages in critical understanding and proposals for practice that serve the needs of contemporary society and the contemporary world. It is an orientation that challenges institutionalism, reductive thinking, essentialism and cultural hierarchies. A response to life in the Zeitgeist I termed the 'global contemporary' (Knell 2019), it privileges situated experiences and cultures and their interconnections.

I am a museologist, historian and geographer who studies knowledge communities associated with museums, looking at their constructive use of objects, institutions and disciplinary culture. My interests extend globally and currently concern both the nature of contemporary museology and the institutional performances of art: its production, construction, representation and consumption. Standing outside of the museum and art world, looking in on the performances of museums and art institutions, my work complements that of museum practitioners and art historians concerned with borders, territories, identities, modernisation and nationhood.

Since arriving at the University in 1992, I have undertaken a number of senior management roles. I was Director and Head of what was the Department of Museum Studies (2002-2007, and acting Head in 2000 and 2017) and Dean of Arts (2008-2009) responsible for the Faculty of Arts. I was part of a senior team which undertook the reorganisation of the University from faculties into colleges completed in 2009. Amongst my achievements here have been winning the current School building and, with Suzanne MacLeod, overseeing its architectural reinvention, and shaping the Department and School for its highly successful RAE2008 and REF2014 submissions, as well as beginning the diversification of our teaching programmes. In 2016, I led the redevelopment of our MA in Art Museum and Gallery Studies (AMAGS) and the introduction of CRÍA. I then moved from teaching on the MA/MSc in Museum Studies to teach on the AMAGS programme, doing so as my sole teaching focus in 2018, though I continue to publish material relevant to all areas of Museum Studies.

I graduated as a physical geographer (Leeds), undertook postgraduate degrees in pollution and environmental control (Manchester) and museum studies (Leicester), and did my PhD on the cultural history of geology (Keele). In the course of my career I have moved my centre of focus from science through the humanities and social sciences to the arts. I remain a committed interdisciplinarian. My career in museums began at Leeds City Museum in 1980, subsequently working in various capacities at the Manchester Museum, Leicestershire Museums, the Area Museums Council for South Eastern England (based at the Geological Museum in London) and in North Lincolnshire.

At the University of Leicester, I have occupied many roles, but have been particularly passionate about, and committed to the development of School of Museum Studies. I was a student here in the mid-1980s and learned then of its distinctive qualities. Since being at Leicester, I have travelled extensively, having taught, presented or undertaken research in most of the countries of Europe, as well as in the Americas, Asia and Australasia. For the past decade, my research focus has been overseas and global.


These days, I teach solely on the MA in Art Museum and Gallery Studies (AMAGS) where my focus is on the agency of the art museum. In this role I lay the foundation for understanding the art museum and particularly its conservative and symbolic political, architectural and curatorial performances. These are things that I and my colleagues then dismantle through the remainder of the course to find a more creative and active purpose for the art institution. I also teach the practical curating component with Stacy Boldrick, the Arts Council Collection and artist collaborators, such as Anna Lucas. For most of my career at Leicester my main contribution has been to the MA/MSc in Museum Studies where I taught collections care, collecting, and natural science curation, before refocusing on material culture study, museum history and politics. I also occasionally lead the component concerned with the ecology of the art city, which focuses on the study of art institutions in Copenhagen. I am a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Research Interests

I have looked at a range of different engagements and communities (museum professionals, professional and amateur scientists, research groups, the middle classes, and most recently art culture, art institutions and painting) using a cultural studies approach which has much in common with ethnology. My interest has not been in a simple history of ideas but in how individuals and groups construct value through objects, careers, disciplinary structures, museums and other institutions. My current research is concerned with: the human condition; situatedness; interconnection; modernisation; representation; politics; identity; and intellectual and cultural metamorphosis.

My most recent book is The Museum's Borders. Having been concerned with social, intellectual and institutional territories for many years, I turned my attention to the presence of borders in museum thinking and action. Rather than being concerned with museums at geographical borders, the book is a consideration of museums' acts of knowledge and memory construction and representation. It argues that, as an autonomous institution committed to ethical methods of engagement, the museum has a critical role to play in the operation of knowledge-based democracies. The book ends by discussing 'contemporary museology', an orientation to practice situated in the new zeitgeist, 'the global contemporary' and first explored in The Contemporary Museum.

National Galleries: The Art of Making Nations considered the performances of national galleries as institutions authoring national art and identities, and looks particularly at those countries excluded from so-called universal art histories. It seeks to re-orientate our appreciation of these institutions away from notions of 'great art' and 'great museums' and towards a more egalitarian understanding of the particularities of national art culture and politics. A particular aspect of this has been the construction and representation of national art histories in these institutions. I am interested in situated local cultures, their performances, boundaries and intersections. For example, art, its institutions and the politics of the city: 'The Gift of Historical Consciousness: Museums, Art, and Poverty'.

Having long been interested in provincial museums and the knowledge cultures associated with them, my research was re-oriented towards national museums and galleries in 2006. This interest began with the Marie Curie-funded Namu project (2006-2008) with Professors Peter Aronsson and Arne Bugge Amundsen of the Universities of Linkoping and Oslo respectively. This project undertook a comparative study of national museums and resulted in the co-edited book National Museums: New Studies from around the World (2010).

The three of us then developed a wider collaboration which resulted in the EU-funded Eunamus project (2010-2013) - the largest research project to be undertaken on national museums. Its focus was historical interpretation in national museums and the implications for a diverse Europe. I looked at the representational performances and cultures of art in European art museums, as well as at national museum architecture and the representational geography of the capital city; I also commissioned my fellow researchers to look at Samdok, class, regionalism and online musealisations which we published online in Crossing Borders: Connecting European Identities in Museums and Online. I led the concluding work examining the making of histories in national museums in the context of a diverse Europe which I co-edited with Peter Aronsson, National Museums Making History in a Diverse Europe.

My studies of museum and object cultures began with research into the uses of fossils as a form of material culture in various social and intellectual contexts. This revealed how these objects operated in the social contexts of provincial England to produce the museum as a ubiquitous cultural institution in Britain in the 1820s. It demonstrated that museums and fossils were bound up in the social transformation of Britain in the era of reform; that they had a counter-revolutionary aspect. Geology was at the height of fashion at the time. I used this same approach - treating geology as a cultural field and fossils as cultural objects - to explore political and intellectual transformations over the last 200 years. My studies of this subject are historical and sociological; they are not geological.The achievements of this research were to rewrite the origins of museums and the science of geology in the early nineteenth century in The Culture of English Geology: A Science Revealed Through Its Collecting and in The Making of the Geological Society of London to discover that the important nineteenth-century concept, 'English geology', was a synonym for the pioneering stratigraphical geology of William Smith (the so-called Father of English Geology) rather than a simple national designation.

I became particularly interested in the constructed nature of material culture in science, and made a longitudinal historical study of the research community that for 150 years formed around one of science's greatest enigmas: the conodont. Rather than pursue a history of ideas, I examined how the mysterious 'conodont animal', as it was known, emerged through a series of different engagements with these problematic fossils. The book argues for the constructed nature of the object in science, separating mental objects from those in the real world. This study was published as The Great Fossil Enigma: The Search for the Conodont Animal. It is a unique study of the fossil as a constructed material object.

I have written and edited a large number of books including many for professionals and students of museum studies including Care of CollectionsMuseums and the Future of CollectingMuseum Revolutions and Museums in the Material World.

I am a member of CRÍA, the School's research Collective for Research into the Institutions of Art. I am series editor of Leicester Readers in Museum Studies (Routledge) - thematic volumes of new work - and was Chair of the Cátedra Extraordinaria de Museología Crítica William Bullock at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC), UNAM, Mexico City in the mid 2010s. I remain a member of INHIGEO, the International Commission on History of Geology.

PhD Supervision

My research students come from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds and are looking at the production and politics of museums, collections, exhibitions and objects, and acts of representation and visual performance. They undertake contemporary and historical analyses.

I am one of a growing number of staff here supervising students who study art museums and galleries (e.g. Suzanne MacLeod, Isobel Whitelegg and Stacy Boldrick). Together we make up CRÍA.

I will supervise a wide range of topics particularly if they are concerned with how museums, or art or science culture and their objects, are constructed. These can be historical or contemporary topics and situated anywhere in the world. Topics include, for example: the history of art museums and galleries; commercial galleries; the art market; art worlds; national galleries; national art (though not purely art historical studies); national and local art cultures; the geography of art; art museums and art history; the politics of museums; cultural diplomacy; representation; objects and knowledge; scientific communities; art communities; the construction of objects; constructionist approaches to the museum

My current research students are working on:

  • The development of the archives professional in Britain
  • Contemporary art in 1990s China
  • Museums and identity along the Silk Road in China
  • Museums and heritage from the birth of the People's Republic of China to the Cultural Revolution
  • Museums, heritage and design culture in China
  • Moral education in museums in China

My PhD graduates:

  • Dr Kristina Dziedzic Wright (2021) Transcultural encounters between Asia and Africa: Experiencing 'Otherness' through the arts in Seoul and Nairobi
  • Dr Olatunde Barber (2021) Modernity and identity: The National Gallery of Modern Art Lagos and the politics of nation making
  • Dr Sophie Kazan (2020) Dialogues of tradition and modernity: The development of contemporary art in the United Arab Emirates
  • Dr Martina Santillan (2019) The conflicting relationship between Socially Engaged Art Practice and museums through the eyes of Mexico City artists
  • Dr Raivis Simansons (2018) Europe's journey to modernity: Developing the House of European History in Brussels


Simon Knell. 2021. 'Border violence, democracy, and the museum', Museum Worlds 9. [A updated version of the opening chapter in The Museum's Borders].

Simon Knell. 2021 (published September 2020). The Museum's Borders: On the Challenge of Knowing and Remembering Well, Routledge, London. [An exploration of how museums construct knowledge and memory that concludes with a detailed discussion of 'contemporary museology'].

Simon Knell. 2019.'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, 40-9 /228-36. [A summary of a contribution to a lecture series I chaired at MUAC in the mid 2010s].

Simon Knell. 2019. 'Contemporary museology' (Mandarin), 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).

Simon Knell. 2019. 'Borders and bridges: museum and global cultural harmony' (Mandarin), Journal of Natural Science Museum Research, 20(2), 66-72, trans. Yang Jin. (西蒙-奈尔著,杨瑾译:《桥梁与边界:博物馆与全球文化和谐》,《自然科学博物馆研究》,2019年第2期,第66-72页). [An edited transcription of a public lecture given at Shaanxi History Museum, Xi'an, in September 2018].

Simon Knell. 2019 (released Sept 2018). 'The museum in the global contemporary' and 'Modernisms: curating art's past in the global present', in Simon Knell (ed.), The Contemporary Museum: Shaping Museums for the Global Now, Routledge, London, 1-10 and 13-36. [The first paper introduces the 'global contemporary' as a Zeitgeist and the 'contemporary museum' as an orientation to it. The second paper discusses the implications of the global contemporary for the interpretation of the history of modern art in general, in museums and in countries at the margin]

Simon J. Knell. 2016. National Galleries: The Art of Making Nations, Routledge, London. [A global study of national galleries (or national museums of fine art) and of the role of these institutions in the construction of national art and nations]

Simon J. Knell. 2016. 'The gift of historical consciousness: museums, art and poverty', in Viviane Gosselin and Phaedra Livingstone (eds) Museums and the Past: Constructing Historical Consciousness, University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver. [A study of social boundaries in Vancouver and the transgressions of museums and artists]

Peter Aronsson and Simon Knell (eds) (for the Eunamus partnership). 2012. National Museums Making Histories in a Diverse Europe, Linkoping University Press, Linkoping. [The concluding dissemination report of the Eunamus investigation - available free online].

Simon Knell. 2012. The Great Fossil Enigma: The Search for the Conodont Animal, Indiana University Press, Bloomington. [A study of the research culture that emerged around one of science's greatest enigmas. It considers the role of intangible fossils in the production of scientific belief and understanding.]

Simon Knell. 2012. 'The intangibility of things', in S. Dudley (ed.) Museum Objects, Routledge, London, 324-35. [A constructivist reading of the museum object, it discusses the possibility of objects possessing an intangible twin]

Simon Knell (ed.). 2012. Crossing Borders: Connecting European Identities in Museums and Online, Linkoping University Press, Linkoping. [Eunamus dissemination report looking at art as an international language, regionalism in England, Sweden, Norway and Italy and online museum-like spaces, most notably in Greece - available free online]

Simon J. Knell. 2010. 'National museums and the national imagination', in Knell et al. (eds) National Museums: New Studies from around the World, Routledge, London. [A probing of how the national imagination is curated in national museums and its relationship to the exterior world]

Simon J. Knell. 2008. 'The road to Smith: How the Geological Society came to possess English geology', in Cherry Lewis & Simon Knell (eds.) The Making of the Geological Society of London, Geological Society, London. [A long, rich and complex sociological study of the invention of 'English geology' and the reception of 'The Father of English Geology', William Smith. Through the courtesy of the Geological Society of London, available for free download].

Simon J. Knell. 2007. 'Museums, fossils and the cultural revolution of science: mapping change in the politics of knowledge in early nineteenth-century Britain' in Simon Knell, Suzanne MacLeod and Sheila Watson (eds), Museum Revolutions: How Museums Change and Are Changed, Routledge, London. [An exploration of how institutions and disciplinary cultures change, and how that change can be revealed through studies of material culture]

Simon J. Knell (ed.). 2007. Museums in the Material World, Leicester Readers in Museum Studies, Routledge, London, including the essay, 'Museums, reality and the material world'. [This book has an overall narrative which starts by demonstrating the empirical value of museums shared by all disciplines which have laid their foundations in the study of objects. It then goes on to problemitise this museum engagement by looking at the cultural politics of objects, objects in social worlds  and the many ways the object is transformed and lost].

Simon J. Knell. 2007. 'The sustainability of geological mapmaking: the case of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, Earth Sciences History, 26(1), 13-29. [A short history of the political context of science]

Simon J. Knell and Michael A. Taylor. 2006 . 'Hugh Miller: fossils, landscape and literary geology', Proceedings of the Geologists Association, 117, 85-98. [Hugh Miller is a Scottish literary icon, and was fabulous travel writer, newspaper editor, and 'amateur' geologist. This paper looks at is complexity]

Simon J. Knell (ed.) 2004. Museums and the Future of Collecting, Ashgate, Aldershot, Second Edition, 266pp including new introductory chapter 'Altered values: searching for a new collecting'. [Reflections on why museums collect, what they collect and what they might collect instead. This is an expanded second edition with a new introduction]

Simon J. Knell. 2004 (1997). ‘Brighton, Albert George (1900-1988)’, New DNB.

Simon J. Knell. 2003. 'The shape of things to come: museums in the technological landscape', Museum and Society, 1(3), 132-46. Versions also published as 'Future museums: a European perspective' in Huang, K. (ed.) Crisis and Opportunity: Museums in the New Century, National Museum of History, Taipei, 24-51, and in a shortened version for M Museos de México y del Mundo, 1(2), 18-27. [A reflection on the technocrat's imaginings of museum futures]

Simon J. Knell, S.J. and Michael A. Taylor. 2003. 'Hugh Miller, fossil discoverer and collector', in Borley, L. (ed.) Celebrating the Life and Times of Hugh Miller: Scotland in the Early 19th Century. Ethnography and Folklore, Geology and Natural History, Church and Society, Cromarty Arts Trust, Edinburgh, UK.

Simon J. Knell. 2002. ‘Collecting, conservation and conservatism: late twentieth century developments in the culture of British geology’, in Oldroyd, D.R. (ed.), The Earth Inside and Out: Some Major Contributions to Geology in the Twentieth Century,Geological Society, London, 329-351. ISBN 1-86239-096-7. [A study of the politics of conservation as Britain moved from the 1970s into the 1980s]

Cherry Lewis & Simon J. Knell, (eds) 2001. The Age of the Earth: From 4004BC to AD2002, Geological Society, London, including introductory chapter by Knell and Lewis, 'Celebrating the age of the Earth'. [A celebratory history]

Simon J. Knell. 2000. The Culture of English Geology, 1815-1851: A Science Revealed Through its Collecting, Ashgate, 377pp. ISBN 1-84014-625-7. [A monograph on the political origins of museums and geology in Britain that offered historians of science a new way to investigate their subject. It is now available for free via the link]

Simon J. Knell. 2000. ‘Museums and geology’, in Hancock, P.L. (ed.) Oxford Companion to the Earth, Oxford UP.

Simon J. Knell (ed.) 1999. Museums and the Future of Collecting, Ashgate, Aldershot, First Edition, which includes the essay, 'What future collecting?'. ISBN 0-7546-0000-9. [First edition of the 2004 version]

Simon J. Knell. 1999. ‘From here to eternity? Creating a future for museum collecting’, in Ku, Ping-Hsing, (ed.) Proceedings of the International Academic Conference a Prospect to the Twenty-first Century Visual Art, National Taiwan Normal University, Taipei.

Simon J. Knell. 1996. 'Museums: a timeless urban resource for the geologist?' Geology on your Doorstep, Geological Society of London [I have disowned this paper: part of the submitted paper was published under the name of one of the editors and the remainder was mangled during editing and published without any review by the contributors. I have published this content elsewhere].

Simon J. Knell. 1996. ‘What is important?’, in Charles W. Pettitt, & John R. Nudds (eds) The Value and Valuation of Natural Science Collections, Geological Society, London, 11-16.

Simon J. Knell. 1996. ‘The roller-coaster of museum geology’, in Pearce, S.M. (ed.) Exploring Science in Museums, New Research in Museum Studies, Athlone, 29-56. ISBN 0-4859-000-68. [Explains that recent concern about the state of collections and public understanding represents a phase in the episodic support for museums and science].

Patrick Wyse-Jackson & Simon J. Knell, (eds.) 1994 Museums and Fossil Excavation, Geological Curator, 6(2), Thematic Issue, including the essays, ‘Collecting and excavation in palaeontology’ and ‘Palaeontological excavation: historical perspectives’

Simon J. Knell (ed.). 1994. Care of Collections, Routledge, London, 250pp. ISBN 0-415-11285-0. [A reader examining preventive conservation practice].

Simon J. Knell (ed.). 1994. A Bibliography of Museum Studies, Scolar Press, Aldershot, 240pp.[Captures resources used in the Department of Museum Studies at that time].

Simon Knell. 1992. ‘The Local Geologist 10: Saying it with rocks’, Geology Today, 8, 224-228. [Part of a column curated by myself and Michael A. Taylor]

Simon Knell & Chris Collins. 1992. ‘The Local Geologist 7: Extinct again!’, Geology Today, 8, 62-65.[On the conservation of geological specimens].

Simon Knell & Michael Taylor. 1991. ‘Museums on the rocks’. Museums Journal, 91(1), 23-25. [On the state and status of museum geological collections]

Simon J. Knell. 1991. ‘The Local Geologist 5: The most important fossil in the world’, Geology Today, 7, 221-224. [Discussing how we decide the relative importance of fossils].

Simon J. Knell. 1991. ‘The Local Geologist 3: The responsible collector’, Geology Today, 7, 106-110. [Discussing collecting and the contemporary demand for responsible practices].

Simon J. Knell. 1991. ‘The Local Geologist 2: Making rock records’, Geology Today, 7, 62-66. [Documenting the geological record].

Simon J. Knell. 1990. ‘The end for the Frodingham Ironstone?’ Geology Today, 6, 125-128. [Asserting the importance of this fossiliferous stratum that was then threatened by landfill].

Simon J. Knell & Michael A. Taylor. 1989. Geology and the Local Museum, HMSO, 150pp. [Pioneering self-help guide for museum staff].

Simon Knell. 1988. The Natural History of the Frodingham Ironstone, Scunthorpe Museum and Art Gallery, 24pp.

M.A.V. Gill & Simon J. Knell. 1988. ‘Tunbridge Wells Museum: Geology and George Abbott (1844-1925)’, The Geological Curator, 5, 3-16.

Simon J. Knell. 1987. ‘Geology Curators get on their Bikes’, Geology Today, 3, 136-138. [About my peripatetic role as Travelling Geology Curator for the Area Museums Service for the South East of England].

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