The first impression one gets from some museums and some writing about museums is that a museum functions much like such other institutions as a house of detention, a house of rehabilitation, or a house of pleasure; or, in the vernacular, a jailhouse, a madhouse, or—a teahouse.

These comparisons are not altogether facetious. A museum may maintain an elaborate intelligence network to capture the wanted, and a security system to prevent their escape or to protect vulnerable inmates. And by overwhelming popular opinion supported by a distressing number of official statements, a primary function of the museum is to provide the opportunity for a few moments of inconsequent pleasure.

Sometimes, again, the behavior and reports of a museum suggest rather that it is like a professional bail park, where what counts is how many people go through the gates. On the other hand, is it perhaps possible that a...

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