Known to all as the V&A, this huge museum is devoted to the applied arts of all disciplines, all periods, and all nationalities. Full of innovation, it's a wonderful, generous place in which to to get lost. First opened as the South Kensington Museum in 1857, it was renamed in 1899 in honor of Queen Victoria's late husband and has since grown to become one of the country's best-loved cultural institutions.
Many collections at the V&A are presented not by
period but by category—textiles, sculpture, jewelry, and so on. Nowhere is the benefit of this more apparent than in the Fashion Gallery (Room 40), where formal 18th-century court dresses are displayed alongside the haute couture styles of contemporary designers, creating an arresting sense of visual continuity.
The British Galleries (rooms 52–58 and 118–125), devoted to British art and design from 1500 to 1900, are full of beautiful diversions—among them the Great Bed of Ware (immortalized in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night). Here, a series of actual rooms have been painstakingly reconstructed piece by piece after being rescued from historic buildings. These include an ornate music room and the Henrietta St. Room, a breathtakingly serene parlor dating from 1722.
The Asian Galleries (rooms 44–47) are full of treasures, but among the most striking items on display is a remarkable collection of ornate samurai armor in the Japanese Gallery (Room 44). There are also galleries devoted to China, Korea, and the Islamic Middle East. More recently installed areas include the Buddhist Sculpture gallery, the Ceramics gallery, and the Medieval and Renaissance galleries, which have the largest collection of works from the period outside of Italy.
The V&A is a tricky building to navigate, so be sure to use the free map. As a whirlwind introduction, you could take a free one-hour tour (10:30, 11:30, 12:30, 1:30, 2:30, or 3:30). There are also tours devoted just to the British Galleries at 12:30 and 2:30. Occasional public lectures during the week are delivered by visiting bigwigs from the art and fashion worlds (prices vary.) There are free lectures throughout the week given by museum staff, who also give an Introductory tour of the collection on Friday nights at 7. Whatever time you visit, the spectacular sculpture hall will be filled with artists, both amateur and professional, sketching the myriad of artworks on display there. Don't be shy; bring a pad and join in. Although the permanent collection is free—and there's enough there to keep you busy for a week—the V&A also hosts high-profile special exhibitions that run for several months.
Apr 6, 2008
Best decorative and applied arts museum I've ever been to, with a stunning and exhaustive collection. Has everything from dresses to musical instruments to ironwork to sculpture to weaponry to furniture to glassware to porcelain to stained glass to gold/silver objects to maps to cartoons (huge, by Raphael) -- even some whole rooms and a few paintings. The cast gallery has gigantic life-sized replicas of things like Trajan's Column, Michelangelo's
"David," and the front of Santiago de Compostela cathedral. A must. Free admission, but note that some galleries close during evening hours.