The Victoria and Albert Museum, usually known as the V&A, is the biggest museum of decorative arts in the world. Some would say it's also the most important and influential, too. The collection is too big to fit inside the building. The museum itself is huge and crammed full of good stuff, but the museum has more than four million objects stashed away in storerooms and cellars and warehouses.
It's vast. Even after more than a dozen trips to the place, I still get lost there. It's a maze of good stuff: with 146 different galleries across 11 acres of South Kensington, there are huge rooms full of furniture, graphic design, stained glass, tapestries, tiles, jewellery, clothing, ceramics, watercolours, the new photography galleries, silver, glass, metalwork, musical instruments, netsuke, armour, wrought iron, carpets. It's a treasure house that covers decorative arts from all over the world, from ancient religious sculptures to the latest designs by Vivienne Westwood et al.
Following the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the museum was originally founded the following year as a Museum of Manufactures. Based at Marlborough House in central London, its aim was to educate, inspire and motivate British designers and manufacturers. In 1857 they moved across to Brompton, where it was renamed The Victoria and South Kensington Museum, only taking on its current name in 1899 in honour of the widowed Queen Victoria. (She had laid the foundation stone of the new building.)
It's been collecting contemporary art and design since its opening in 1852, but also has the largest collection of Italian renaissance scultpure outside Italy. That's the thing about the V&A: it's a surprise. You turn a corner, leaving the Islamic art section, and walk slap into a study of logo design in the 90s.
The building is opulent, to say the least. It's a Victorian monstrosity: vast, sky-high ceilings, over-whelmingly decorated with little twiddly bits, and full of visual jokes. If you get a chance to go: do have tea in the William Morris and Gamble rooms, just for the weird juxtaposition of paper cups and ornate wall paper and mirrors. (Oh, that and the fact that it's one of the most perfect examples of decoration from the Arts and Crafts Movement.)
If you go during office hours, and have any interest in ukiyo-e, make sure to knock on the door of the print room. They have a stunning collection of woodblock prints that are not on display, but are open to view under supervision. The textile room has a 5000 piece collection that spans 2000 years of textile history (though you'll need to make an appointment to see the rugs).
It's one of the three South Kensington museums, along with The Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, and you can buy an annual season ticket that covers all three. Sadly, entrance fees were introduced in the eighties, when the museum was in severe financial trouble. Now it's five pounds to enter (but with free entry after 4.30 every afternoon). It's worth the money. (update: as if by magic, entrance to the museum, as with all the other national museums, is now gloriously free. Hurrah!)
The V&A is also responsible for The Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green, the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden and the Wellington Museum at Aspley House.
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