In all of my visits to London over the past twenty plus years, I’ve only ventured into two museums – the British Museum on a rainy day and the Tate Modern along South Bank at the end of the Millennium Bridge. I’ve been woefully ignorant of the many wonderful museum options in London such as the V&A Museum, short for the Victoria & Albert Museum of Decorative Arts. As the V&A was located around the corner from my hotel, The Ampersand, in South Kensington, I decided to finally visit and take advantage of the free guided tour in the morning. How woefully ignorant was I to the V&A? It was about fifteen minutes into the tour after the illuminated rug that I realized that the museum is dedicated to the Decorative Arts. Everyone always calls it the V&A, I didn’t realize there was more to the name. It would be a museum full of surprises and delights and much more than I thought. Many often visit the V&A Museum for special exhibits or Friday night music, but you really need to visit for an in-depth experience.
The V&A Museum Tour Highlights
For the free guided tour, we had about twenty visitors from around the world. The V&A Musuem is international with displays from around the world as well. Our guide, an American ex-pat who has lived in London for more than half of her life, was extremely knowledgeable and patient to keep the group together and answer all questions. The Victoria & Albert Museum (the V&A Museum) is over 7 miles of art so there’s enough to keep you engaged and get you lost so a guided tour hits some highlights to get you started on your adventure.
The Ardabil Carpet
The Ardabil carpet is a Persian rug on display in a climate controlled case in which the carpet is suspended to be shown in the full length and under a protective shield from the museum lights. It is illuminated only a few times a day for you to view the splendor of the woven tapestry. The carpet has undergone such a journey in all of its years at the V&A Museum. This is a wonderful first stop to introduce you to the artistry and craftsmanship that the world’s history contains and is represented in only a few of the over 1 million pieces at the V&A Musuem.
The Great Bed of Ware
This is a famous (I had no clue) bed mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – it’s from the 1590’s and pretty big. Its 11 feet long and 10 feet wide. It’s layers are shown in a diagram on the wall and in an interactive display.
Fashion at the V&A Museum
The dresses of the era, the formal wear of ceremony and other details of fashion are plentiful at the V&A. Many special events are fashion related and draw the crowds.
Books & Library at the V&A Museum
Off to the side of the room our guide introduced us to a display of antique books and not only did they photograph well but they were so well-preserved and interesting to read more about each book and its significance. There was also a multi storied library that I wandered into and could look up close at the book titles.
The Cast Court at the V&A
The long hallway on the ground floor was filled with casts that definitely made me rethink my biscuit consumption as my body cast would resemble more jabba the hut than these delicate pieces of art. It was interesting to see the detail on the front and see that the back was hollow.
Wandering the V&A Museum
With so many floors and wings, the V&A kept surprising me with more and more shiny objects and fascinating woodwork in addition to the paintings, tapestries and household items of the past as well as glassware from present day. I spent much more time than anticipated wandering the floors and getting a bit lost (glad I bought a map!). I was one of a handful of visitors who ventured to the furniture gallery, the staff seemed happy to see me (or any visitor!). As it was a Friday morning in winter, for the most part the museum wasn’t crowded so you can enjoy as leisure.
My Childhood Surprise at the V&A Museum
There comes a time when you realize you’re a bit old and that time smacked me in the face at the V&A Museum when I entered a gallery that took my breath away (not in a good way). In the display case were many remnants of my childhood including a Sony Walkman (which I might still have in storage at my house). At what point am I that old that my childhood belongs in a museum as part of the past?
The rotary phone – sure. The push button phone that I spent (too many) hours dialing to win radio contests – ok. But mobile phones? Games? The 80’s? It was just too much to take in. But then I realized that my nieces have no clue of life before cable television, the Disney Channel and the internet. They can’t quite fathom we had four television channels growing up, no internet and mobile phone and what was that princess phone all about. School children can gawk at the boom box and laugh that their parents and grandparents carried that monster around to listen to the radio live and play cassette tapes (oh the horror!).
btw – if any museum wants to buy more of my childhood memories of the 70’s & 80’s, just call me, I’ll be happy to sell them to you!
Glass from the Past and into the Future
Modern glass sculptures welcome you into the past at the gallery of glass. At first it seems a bit much all arranged together in groups behind more glass. But as you walk past the glass made over the centuries and see the differences and similarities by country, you get to peek into life before you knew it. The artistry is just stunning especially as I’ve attending many glass blowing demonstrations/classes over the years in Venice and the U.S. to know how intricate and difficult the process is (I was surprised to see a Chihuly in the lobby). Your drinking glass or glass vase is a part of life and hard to imagine that it is part of a timeline of life in your country or town. Advancement in techniques, design and color are showcased in one room that will make you look at all glasses objects differently at home.
This Ain’t Pottery Barn – Ceramics at the V&A Museum
Cluttered in a room stacked high and low with pottery, you get to visit the life of clay and how it has been molded and sculpted over the years. As someone who has tried to mold clay into mosaic tiles, I learned a great appreciation for the art of clay and pottery. I wanted to walk past the room and discount the pots and figurines but I was lured by the uniqueness of it all and it kept me in the room longer than anticipated, much like most of the museum. The detail is like so much of the museum captivating.
Virtual Visit the V&A Musueum Collections
If you want to virtually visit the V&A Musuem from your chair, go search the V&A online with this fantastic online tool which gives you access to over 1.1 million objects and over 650k images. Art online available to all is how it should be so if you can’t jet over the pond to the museum in person, you can enjoy the world’s art at home .
Final Thoughts – Visiting the V&A Museum in London
Spending a few hours visiting the evolution of the decorative arts in painting, pottery, furniture, tapestries and household items (thankfully we’ve evolved to beer mugs much lighter than pewter) was really interesting. So often the decorative arts are overlooked in art museums in lieu of the famous paintings (and painters), sculptures and other more popular items like fashion exhibits and special collections so my visit to the V&A was pretty enlightening. My visit to the V&A Museum was so engrossing that I didn’t realize nearly four hours had passed and I missed lunch (pack a snack or visit the cafe on site). It shouldn’t take you more than twenty years to view this like it did me, you should add it to your London itinerary now!
Admission is free, special exhibits have a fee and a donation is requested for the paper museum guide. The museum is a short walk from the South Kensington tube station which is served by the Circle, District and Piccadilly lines.(note that weekends get busy at the station and staff often close the station to lessen the crowding).