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 '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 later 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 RAE2008 and REF2014 successes, as well as leading 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 the MA/MSc in Museum Studies to teach on the AMAGS programme, doing so completely in 2018.

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 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.

Research

I have looked at a range of different engagements (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 and museums. My current research is concerned with:

  • the human condition
  • situatedness
  • interconnection
  • modernisation
  • representation
  • politics

My most recent book developed the concepts of the 'global contemporary' and the 'contemporary museum'. These ideas are being taken forward in work on 'contemporary museology'. My most recent monograph considered performances of national galleries as institutions authoring national art and identities, and looks particularly at those countries excluded from so-called universal art histories. I am a member of CRÍA, the School's research collective examining the institutions of art.

My earlier work looked at:

  • European national museums and social cohesion
  • the workings of science communities (particularly geologists, palaeontologists and technologists)
  • material culture, collecting and collections
  • the care of collections

My current research is focused on art museums and the production of modern art identities beyond Europe. This was published in The Contemporary Museum. My monograph, National Galleries: The Art of Making Nations, looks globally at the phenomenon of national galleries (which in many parts of the world are known as national museums of fine art and national museums of modern and contemporary art), and seeks to re-orientate our appreciation of them 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 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 class, regionalism and online musealisations. I led the concluding work examining the making of histories in national museums in the context of a diverse Europe. I led the development of these publications: Crossing Borders: Connecting European Identities in Museums and Online, and 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 politics 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: 

Teaching

For most of my career at Leicester my main contribution as 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. These days, I teach solely on the MA in Art Museum and Gallery Studies where my focus is on the agency of the art museum. 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 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.

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, Janet Marstine, Isobel Whitelegg and Stacy Boldrick). Together we make up CRÍA.

I will supervise a wide range of topics particularly if they have a constructionist perspective. 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)
  • 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:

  • Contemporary art engagements in Mexico
  • Contemporary art culture in the United Arab Emirates
  • The national art and national gallery of Nigeria
  • Art cultures and interactions in and between Seoul and Nairobi
  • Museums and identity along the Silk Road in China
  • Exhibitions and the Chinese Cultural Revolution
  • The V&A in China

Past research students:

  • Raivis Simansons (2018) The House of European History in Brussels

Publications

Knell, S. 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 art in general and in museums]

Knell, S. 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]

Knell, S.J. 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]

Eunamus. 2012. National Museums Making Histories in a Diverse Europe, Linkoping University Press, Linkoping. [The concluding dissemination report of the Eunamus investigation - available free online].

Knell, S.J. 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.]

Knell, S.J. 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]

Knell, S.J. and others 2012. Crossing Borders: Connecting European Identities in Museums and Online, Linkoping University Press, Linkoping. [Eunamus dissemination report looking at the art as a transcontinental medium, regionalism in England, Sweden, Norway and Italy and online museum-like spaces, most notably in Greece - available free online]

Knell, S.J. 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]

Knell, S.J. 2008. 'The road to Smith: How the Geological Society came to possess English geology', in Lewis, C. & Knell, S.J. (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].

Knell, S.J. 2007. 'Museums, fossils and the cultural revolution of science: mapping change in the politics of knowledge in early nineteenth-century Britain' in Knell, S.J., MacLeod, S. and Watson, S. (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]

Knell, S.J. (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].

Knell, S.J. 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]

Knell, S.J. and Taylor, M.A. 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]

Knell, S.J. (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]

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

Knell, S.J. 2003. 'The shape of things to come: museums in the technological landscape', Museum and Society, 1(3). 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]

Knell, S.J. and Taylor, M.A. 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.

Knell, S.J. 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]

Lewis, C. & Knell, S.J. (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]

Knell, S.J. 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]

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

Knell, S.J. (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]

Knell, S.J. 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.

Knell, S.J. 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].

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

Knell, S.J. 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

Wyse-Jackson, P. & Knell, S.J. (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’

Knell, S.J. (ed.) 1994. Care of Collections, Routledge, London, 250pp. ISBN 0-415-11285-0.

Knell, S.J. (ed.) 1994. A Bibliography of Museum Studies, Scolar Press, Aldershot, Brookfield, Singapore and Sydney 240pp.

Knell, S.J. 1992. ‘The Local Geologist 10: Saying it with rocks’, Geology Today, 8, 224-228.

Knell, S.J. & Collins, C.J. 1992. ‘The Local Geologist 7: Extinct again!’, Geology Today, 8, 62-65.

Knell, S.J. & Taylor, M.A. 1991. ‘Museums on the rocks’. Museums Journal, 91(1), 23-25.

Knell, S.J. 1991. ‘The Local Geologist 5: The most important fossil in the world’, Geology Today, 7, 221-224.

Knell, S.J. 1991. ‘The Local Geologist 3: The responsible collector’, Geology Today, 7, 106-110.

Knell, S.J. 1991. ‘The Local Geologist 2: Making rock records’, Geology Today, 7, 62-66.

Knell, S.J. 1990. ‘The end for the Frodingham Ironstone?’ Geology Today, 6, 125-128.

Knell, S.J. & Taylor, M.A. 1989. Geology and the Local Museum, HMSO, 150pp.

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

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

Knell, S.J. 1987. ‘Geology Curators get on their Bikes’, Geology Today, 3, 136-138.

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