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Playing to the gallery

From art to live music, ease of reproduction has hugely increased the premium of the "real." What does this mean for museums? In a world overloaded with information, their dual roles as sources of culture and popular pleasure are increasingly in tension

By Tom Chatfield   September 2007

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On 24th May 1683, Britain’s first museum, the Ashmolean, opened its doors in Oxford. Divided into three parts, it contained rooms for undergraduate lectures, a laboratory and a miscellaneous collection of specimens and cultural artefacts. Such “collections” had always been considered the preserve of an elite possessing the leisure, taste and education profitably to contemplate them—displaying one to the general public was a radically progressive notion, even though this “public” meant respectable commoners able to afford the admission. Primarily, the museum was intended for research and scholarly taxonomy; the word “museum” itself…

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