Victoria and Albert Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum (more commonly called the V&A) is the world's biggest art and design museum, with more that four million pieces, and with its magnificent, opulent halls, it’s must be one of the world’s grandest too.
It was named after Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, and it stands conveniently close to the Science and Natural History Museums – though attempting to visit all three in one day will likely lead to culture fatigue.
The Victoria and Albert Museum has its origins in The Great Exhibition of 1851, which Henry Cole, the museum's first director, helped to plan. Exhibits from the Exhibition form the basis of today’s collection. Initially known as The Museum of Manufactures, in these early years the practical rather than artistic uses of the exhibits were emphasized. It only grew into its present role when all the scientific apparatus was moved to the new Science Museum in 1893. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength and now the Victoria and Albert ranks as one of the world’s finest museums.
Today’s galleries are devoted to ceramics, glass, textiles, costumes, metalwork, jewellery, furniture, art and photography. As well as the world's largest collection of post-classical sculpture, there are more Italian Renaissance items here than anywhere else outside Italy. The East Asian collections are huge, with particular strengths in ceramics and metalwork, while the Islamic collection is one of the world’s largest.
It’s hard to pick out highlights among such a massive and disparate collection, but in the Far Eastern galleries look out for a metre high bronze head of Buddha dated to the 750 AD and a beautiful 2,000 year old jade horse head - and plenty of visitors are impressed by the lethal Japanese swords and ornate amour. One of the more unusual items in the Indian Gallery is 'Tipu's Tiger', an automaton of a tiger mauling a British soldier.
There are no less than 15 British galleries; here, search out the royal accouterments, from Henry VIII's writing desk to Elizabeth I’s harpsichord - and the huge ‘Bed of Ware’ - an enormous four poster designed for twelve people.
In the fashion galleries, you’ll find ornate finery of all kinds, ranging from James II wedding suit to Vivienne Westwood’s inspired craziness.
In the visual arts, highlights include the Raphael Cartoons, seven huge designs for biblical tapestries, originally made for the Sistine Chapel, and paintings by Constable.
But the gallery with the biggest wow factor is, ironically, full of reproductions; the cast gallery is stuffed with plaster casts of copies of the greatest European statuary, including Michelangelo’s David.
Perhaps in a bid to lose its associations with frumpy Victoriana, in recent years the Museum has made an effort to reach out to a diverse audience with quirky and youth culture themed temporary exhibitions; in 1973 it was the first museum to hold a rock concert, and recent temporary exhibitions have included shows on Kylie Minogue, Japanese cosplay, Beatrix Potter and youth tribes.
Finally, the museum has one unusual highlight: a fantastic café – a set of fabulously opulent, high ceilinged Victorian refreshment rooms, with décor designed by William Morris. It’s the perfect place for a coffee after all those sumptuous objects.
Victoria and Albert Museum Opening times:
10.00 to 17.45 daily
10.00 to 22.00 Fridays (selected galleries remain open after 18.00. ).
Closed 24, 25 & 26 December
South Kensington tube.
Victoria and Albert Museum
London SW7 2RL