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Museum as memory bank

The main purpose of museums is neither to educate nor to entertain. Charles Saumarez Smith, director of the National Portrait Gallery, says museums are places of memory

One of the most memorable lectures I heard when I was on the staff of the Victoria and Albert Museum was a training talk given by Valerie Mendes, about her experiences of collecting examples of contemporary dress for the museum. She brought along a rail of 20th century frocks. To look at, they did not seem particularly interesting, rather like items of salvage from an expensive West End Oxfam shop. But, as she talked about them in turn and how she had acquired them, they became intellectually engaging. Each item ceased to be a bit of old fabric wrapped in…

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