Knowns and Unknowns

The world is in a strange place at the moment and one wonders on a daily basis what is going to happen next. I have been thinking about this in the context of knowledge-sharing.

Knowns and Unknowns

It was Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense from 2001-2006, who said:

“… there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.”

If Rumsfeld had been giving a lecture on organizational behaviour, accompanied by a slide presentation, it would have made perfect sense. Unfortunately in the public arena it came across as clumsy, and oh so memorable.

I do not want to comment on how this applies to the world situation today; that’s for others to do. Instead, being a maverick, I look to my art history training to make sense of it. Bear with me on this.

Sir John Soane’s Museum

Inside Sir John Soane Museum (photo
Inside Sir John Soane Museum (photo

I recently visited Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. It ranks among the top things for tourists to do in London and is a gem of a place that takes you back to Regency London (1795-1837). That visit made me think about knowledge management and in particular, Donald Rumsfeld’s quote.

Known Knowns

Sir John Soane was a prominent English architect in the early 19th century, best known for the designing The Bank of England.

The Soane museum, which was his home, has been left untouched since he gifted it to the public. It is full of quirky corners, jam-packed with sculpture, paintings, furniture and artefacts reflecting the spoils of an 18th century Grand Tour. Soane himself spent years figuring out just where to place his possessions and today we get to enjoy the fruits of his labours.

Located in a quiet square in central London, near Holborn Station, admission is free and the hours of opening are on its website.

Known Unknowns

You may have heard of this museum but have never visited it. That’s easy enough to remedy if you happen to find yourself nearby with an hour to spare.

Unknown Knowns

Red telephone box
Red telephone box

You will be familiar with the classic British red telephone box. What you may not know is that the phone box was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who based its unusual roof line and profile on the mausoleum that Sir John Soane designed for his beloved wife.

Unknown Unknowns

When you visit the Soane Museum, there is one room towards the end of your tour that, for me, is the highlight. It is a small panelled room, covered by paintings and drawings from floor to ceiling. It is very busy yet quite beautiful. Hogarth’s Election series (1754) is on view and is entertaining in light of Brexit and the 2016 US election.

Hogarth's Rake's Progress: The Levee (Soane Museum)
Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress: The Levee (Soane Museum)

But that is not the whole story of the room. The room is like one of those Russian nesting dolls.

The member of staff who is in the room offers to open the panels on one wall to reveal yet more paintings. This unveils Hogarth’s renowned ‘A Rake’s Progress‘ (1732), a series of eight paintings illustrating a life that starts out in the best of circumstances yet unravels through over-indulgence.

After closing that set of panels, the guide offers to open the panels on the opposite wall, and you get to see even more paintings and prints, this time by Sir John Soane himself and the Italian print maker, Piranesi. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, then comes the revelation.

The guide opens a further set of panels which sit behind the previous panels. This opens to what can only be described as a vista. It is not a wall nor is it a room that you can enter. It is extraordinary. I suggest you go to the museum to see it for yourself. You will not be disappointed.

Last words

So there you have it: an art historian’s guide to Donald Rumsfeld’s immortal words and some encouragement to visit one of London’s smaller galleries. If nothing else, a visit will transport you back to an earlier era and take your mind off the world’s woes today.


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