National Galleries  book cover
1st Edition

National Galleries

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ISBN 9781138182233
Published February 1, 2016 by Routledge
274 Pages

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Book Description

Are national galleries different from other kinds of art gallery or museum?
What value is there for the nation in a collection of international masterpieces?
How are national galleries involved in the construction national art?

National Galleries is the first book to undertake a panoramic view of a type of national institution – which are sometimes called national museums of fine art – that is now found in almost every nation on earth. Adopting a richly illustrated, globally inclusive, comparative view, Simon Knell argues that national galleries should not be understood as ‘great galleries’ but as peculiar sites where art is made to perform in acts of nation building. A book that fundamentally rewrites the history of these institutions and encourages the reader to dispense with elitist views of their worth, Knell reveals an unseen geography and a rich complexity of performance. He considers the ways the national galleries entangle art and nation, and the differing trajectories and purposes of international and national art. Exploring galleries, artists and artworks from around the world, National Galleries is an argument about how we think about and study these institutions. Privileging the situatedness of each national gallery performance, and valuing localism over universalism, Knell looks particularly at how national art is constructed and represented. He ends with examples that show the mutability of national art and by questioning the necessity of art nationalism.

Table of Contents


List of Plates

List of Figures


1. Picturing the national gallery

Budapest 2012

Embarking on a new journey

Defining the national gallery

Redefining and complicating the definition

Boundary institutions

Putting the nation in the gallery

Nations, the national and the international

The political agency of national galleries

The national gallery and the art-nation


2. Entangling art and nation

Oslo 2011

Isolating artists

Subjects and essences

Citizens and foreigners

Inscription and entombment

Making up stories

Respecting the nation

3. National and international art

London 2013

Accumulating masterpieces

An authored geography

An idiosyncratic inheritance

Appropriation and moral purpose

The nation as a moral good

The psychology of taste



4. The Invention of national galleries

London 1629

The National Gallery

The Louvre

Nationalising the royal museum

National galleries as projects of unification

National galleries and the fight for independence

State art museums, ideology and control

Fanaticism and the national gallery

National galleries and fragmenting nations

Diverse invention

5. An idea in global translation

Mexico City 2000

Latin America

The British model abroad

Speaking to the world

Censorship, propaganda and freedom

The independent nation

Building a better world


6. Buildings in cities

Canberra 2010

The curated city or the body of the nation

An aesthetic paradigm

A functional ideal

Galleries for the nation

Function and nation

Brutalism, blandness and bling

Strange appropriations

7. Performances in space

London 2013

Harmonic agency

Movement and culmination

Scale, spectacle, transcendence and the sublime

Inserting the nation

Storied space

Political maps of culture

Convention and invention



8. Making national art

Tirana 2012

State realisms in Russia, Germany and China

Academic nationalism in Poland

The Prado and the invention of the Spanish tradition

National art perfected: Canada’s Group of Seven


9. Admitting complexity

Guernica 1937

Impressionism, Australia and the national artist

Internationalism and the Hungarian Fauves

Contesting New Zealand’s Colin McCahon

America’s inclusive abstraction and Latino art

Beyond nation, beyond art: Indigenous Australia

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Simon Knell is Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies, UK.


"The book is a welcome contribution to the project of ‘making strange’ the naturalized cultural forms, practices and assumptions associated with national galleries. In an eminently readable and engaging compendium of thematic perspectives and critical accounts, Knell reveals some of the vast and usually unremarked differences between national galleries. Through a comparative framework he attends sensitively to their situated peculiarities and to their political contexts and roles, providing new insights into the ways in which interrelated ideas of art and the nation have historically been constructed in the institutional remits, rhetoric, collections and space of museums. Achieving a uniquely wide and comparative perspective only available to the near-constant traveller, Knell has provided a landmark study for the understanding of national galleries." Christopher Whitehead, Professor of Museology, Newcastle University, UK

"A welcome survey of the development and meaning of national galleries of art beyond the familiar institutional histories of western Europe and the United States of America." Professor Helen Rees Leahy, University of Manchester

"Covering a broad range of histories and institutions, Knell tackles the subject of national galleries with clarity and aplomb. The text is supported by 41 black-and-white images and 15 color plates, many taken by the author, a thorough index, and ample notes... Useful to those interested in museum studies, collecting histories, national identity, material and cultural heritage, and related fields in the fine arts.Summing Up: Recommended"— J. Decker, CHOICE Reviews