Exploring the Victoria and Albert Museum: A Visitor's Guide
The Victoria and Albert Museum (aka, the V&A) is part of a complex of museums in South Kensington that includes the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. Founded in 1852 and financed from the profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851, it moved to its present location in 1909. Today, the V&A covers nearly 13 acres and contains 145 galleries spanning some 5,000 years of art.
Exhibits are conveniently arranged into four main categories: Asia; Furniture, Textiles and Fashion; Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass; and Word and Image. It's impossible to get around this vast museum in a single visit, so the best plan to tackle it is to decide in advance which sections you most want to see.
The British Galleries
Consisting of 15 galleries and some 4,000 art and craft related artifacts, the displays in the British Galleries revolve around the themes of style, trendsetters and innovations between the 16th and 20th centuries. The galleries themselves are divided into three groups: Tudor and Stuart Britain (1500-1714) including examples from the Renaissance, Elizabethan and Baroque styles; Georgian Britain (1714-1837), featuring Asian influences and the Gothic revival; and Victorian Britain (1837-1901), covering the Renaissance revival and other influences.
Ceramics and Glass
The V&A's ceramics and glass collection is widely regarded as the largest and most comprehensive in the world, boasting over 80,000 objects from every continent. Examples include Meissen porcelain from Europe's earliest kilns (including pieces designed by Frederick the Great). Also of note is the V&A's stained glass collection, which includes pieces from the 12th to 16th centuries from England and Europe.
Fashion and Textiles
The V&A's superb Fashion Gallery includes a permanent exhibition of historical costumes from the Renaissance period to the present and is one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of its kind. Textiles and embroideries are incorporated into displays dealing with particular periods, such as medieval, Elizabethan and 17th century styles, as well as church vestments from the 8th to 12th centuries. The museum also boasts a superb textile study room containing examples of virtually every kind of known textile technique.
The Jewelry Gallery
The V&A's fine collection of jewelry consists of more than 6,000 items ranging from ancient Egypt to the modern day. Examples from renowned jewelers Cartier and Fabergé are included, as well as diamond dress ornaments made for historic figures such as Marie Antoinette and Catherine the Great. Examples of modern day jewelry are also displayed, as well as traditional items from Asia and Africa.
Asia, India and Islam
The V&A's collection of art from Asia and India is one of the largest of its kind and contains many unique items from places such as the Himalayas and China. Perhaps the most famous piece is Tippoo's Tiger, a life-size mechanical toy depicting a fierce tiger attacking a European soldier. Other important pieces include a variety of weapons, armor, pottery and art, many relating to ancient Chinese burials, temples and worship, as well as the Imperial Court. The museum's impressive collection of Islamic art includes a Persian gold enameled dagger with sheath, Spanish ivory boxes and, carved from a block of crystal, a 10th century Egyptian ewer.
The Furniture Gallery
The newest of the V&A's many permanent exhibits, the Furniture Gallery showcases the design and construction of such great furniture makers as Frank Lloyd Wright (a complete office bedecked with his furniture has been recreated) and Eileen Gray. Although predominantly focusing on British furniture and designers of the 18th to 20th centuries - including examples by Adam, Chippendale and Mackintosh - a number of superb medieval pieces are also on display.
The Cast Courts and Sculpture Galleries
Originally designed for art students who lacked the funds to travel to distant places, these two Victorian galleries provided many fine examples of original architecture as backgrounds for their work. Today, each gallery houses hundreds of sculptures, friezes and plaster casts, as well as towering columns and a full-size replica of Michelangelo's David. All told, the V&A's sculpture collection contains some 22,000 pieces dating from 400 AD to 1914. Other highlights include rare ivory sculptures, medieval statues and carvings, as well as Art Nouveau examples.
A variety of silverware from Britain, Europe, Russia and South America is included in this display, as well as traditional tableware, toys and enameled boxes. Of special note is the treasured 15th century Pusey Horn, an ornate silver-mounted ceremonial drinking cup. All told, the collection consists of more than 40,000 items, including decorative ironwork, bronze castings, weapons and armor, plus more than 10,000 unique objects made from silver or gold.
Paintings, Miniatures, Drawings and Prints
A highlight of the V&A's extensive art collection - including oil paintings, watercolors, pastels and miniatures - are works by John Constable, as well as displays of his techniques through sketches in pencil, watercolor and oil. The museum's extensive art collection also comprises some 10,000 British drawings, including the world famous Raphäel depicting the Apostles and originally designed for tapestries for Pope Leo X in 1515.
The Photography Gallery
More than 500,000 images dating from 1839 are to be found in the V&A's photography collection. Photographers whose work can be seen on display include Man Ray, David Bailey and Cecil Beaton. Of particular note is Eadweard Muybridge's remarkable photo series entitled Animal Locomotion from 1887.
The Architecture Gallery
Another relatively new addition to the V&A, the Architecture Gallery deals with the history of architecture through models, photos, sketches and building materials. The collection houses over 600,000 drawings, more than 750,000 papers and over 700,000 photographs from around the world. Amongst the most important collections are items related to Britain's most famous architect, Sir Christopher Wren.
National Art Library
The V&A is also home to the National Art Library, one of the world's oldest such libraries. Amongst its collection of over 750,000 books, paintings and prints are old illuminated manuscripts, as well as rare books and letters related to some of the world's most famous artists, including notebooks that once belonged to Leonardo da Vinci.
Theatre and Performance Galleries
The V&A's Theatre and Performance galleries offer a fascinating glimpse into the history of stage production down the centuries, including memorabilia dating back to Shakespeare's time. Other interesting artifacts relate to dance, musicals and music halls, circuses, and even rock'n'roll, and include costumes, set models and posters.
After Hours: Late Night Fridays
A fun way for adults to experience the V&A is to participate in one of their Friday Late programs (6:30-10pm, last Friday of the month). Activities include live music, fashion shows, movies, lectures and talks, special guests and dancing, along with food and drink - and, of course, late-night exhibition openings. Tip: Arrive early, as entrance is "first-come-first-in" and they tend to fill quickly.
Touring the Victoria and Albert Museum
Most tours at the V&A are free, with options including everything from daily introductory tours to specific gallery or themed tours. A variety of set group tours are also available dealing with specific galleries and last an hour (cost: £10 per person, minimum-person fees apply). Tailor-made tours are also available for those with a specific interest and last 1.5 hours (cost: £17.50 per person, minimum-person fees apply). To find out more, visit the V&A's Tours page.
Tips and Tactics: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to the V&A
The following Tips and Tactics will help ensure you get the most out of your visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum:
- What's On: For details of special events and closures, visit the V&A's What's On page prior to your visit.
- Shopping: The V&A Shop offers many excellent books, prints, gifts and souvenirs related to its permanent (and temporary) exhibits. Most items are also available online.
- Learning: The V&A boasts a superb program of lectures and learning opportunities focusing on the arts and given by leading professionals in their fields. Courses run the gamut from one-offs to yearlong options (fees apply). Cloakrooms: Cloakrooms are available to stow luggage, bags and bike helmets, etc.
- Food and Drink: The V&A has a number of handy dining options, including the kid-friendly V&A Café, and the Garden Café, which serves snacks and drinks during the summer months. For those bringing their own lunch, the Learning Centre Lunchroom is available.
Getting to the V&A
- By Underground (Tube): South Kensington is the nearest underground station (Piccadilly, Circle and District lines).
- By Train: The nearest train station is Victoria. For details of links to London from across the country, visit www.nationalrail.co.uk.
- By Bus: Bus routes C1, 14, 74 and 414 stop at the Cromwell Road entrance, while Open Tour sightseeing buses stop at the V&A.
- By Bike: The cycle paths at Hyde Park are easily accessible from the V&A, and bike racks are provided at Cromwell Gardens near the Grand Entrance.
- By Road: Driving is never easy in London, and if you do drive, expect to face Congestion Charges. Alternatively, park at an outlying train station and take the train or underground.
- Parking: On street parking is limited.
- V&A: Sat-Thurs, 10am-5:45pm; Fri, 10am-10pm
- National Art Library: Tues-Sat, 10am-5:30pm; Fri, 10am-6:30pm
- Cromwell Rd, London SW7 2RL
Another excellent museum very close to the V&A is the superb Natural History Museum. In addition to its 50,000 books, 10,000 preserved animals and 334 volumes of pressed plant species is a collection of more than 70 million items covering zoology, paleontology, mineralogy, entomology and botany. Then, for a change of pace, check out the concert schedule at the historic Albert Hall, England's most famous concert hall, or head to Buckingham Palace to take in the colorful pageantry of the daily Changing of the Guard ceremony, or take a tour of the State Rooms used by the Queen to entertain visitors.
Hyde Park is also close by and offers superb views of the palace, as well as plenty of quiet spots to get away from the crowds or to rest those weary legs while enjoying a picnic (superb picnic hampers are available from nearby Harrods). Another park worthy of a visit is nearby Holland Park, particularly attractive in spring when the tulips bloom.