The world’s greatest museum of art and design and an unrivalled repository for the best examples of mankind’s creativity, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum houses a collection that spans two thousand years and incorporates objects in virtually every medium. Housed at its current South Kensington site since 1857, the sprawling complex has perpetuated its international renown by hosting a series of sell-out exhibitions dedicated to the most influential artists of modern times. Its current exhibition, Savage Beauty, runs until August 2 and is dedicated to the work of the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen. For those wanting to rediscover the permanent collection when visiting the show, the V&A’s director Martin Roth provides his guide to the best of the museum, and explains why it is one of the world’s preeminent cultural attractions.
How should first-time visitors structure their visit?
With seven miles of galleries and thousands of objects to choose from, structure isn’t easy to impose on the V&A. On a first visit, just wander. Try to see something on every level of the museum, and absorb the atmosphere of this incredible building. The Ceramics and Furniture Galleries on the top floor, both designed in the last decade, are well worth discovering.
What should visitors ensure they see?
Don’t miss the chance to have tea in the oldest museum café in the world, and one of the most beautiful. The three tiled rooms were designed by William Morris and friends in the 1870s. And do look into the National Art Library, a great place to study and still something of a well-kept secret in London.
When are the best times to visit?
Come on a Friday evening with friends, when the V&A stays open to 10pm and features music, DJs, talks and a late bar. Or, if you’re looking for a quieter time, a weekday morning.
For visitors with limited time, which rooms or exhibits should be avoided?
A short walk around the galleries next to the Grand Entrance will take you through the Medieval and Renaissance period and into Japanese, Chinese and Middle Eastern cultures old and new. Just those, plus a look round the V&A shop would be plenty for a quick visit and you won’t have to spend time looking at the map.
Which works best give insight into Britain?
The British Galleries give an atmospheric introduction to the country’s history, including several period rooms, and feature The Great Bed of Ware, perhaps Britain’s most famous bed pre- Tracey Emin. Made in the 1590s, it is over 11 feet long and ten feet wide, and is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. More Shakespearean objects can be found in the Theatre & Performance galleries, alongside fantastic pieces of 20 century British pop culture – from Mick Jagger’s jumpsuit to Margot Fonteyn’s tutu and one of the horse puppets from the play War Horse.
What’s your favourite work?
Impossible to choose! But the Cast Courts are one of my favourite galleries, and a favourite for many other people too – including Alexander McQueen.
Which work has the most interesting history?
Let’s take the fig leaf. One of the V&A’s earliest acquisitions was a cast of Michelangelo’s David, given to Queen Victoria by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Nude statues were objects of public controversy at the time and so a fig leaf was made and hung on 2 strategically placed hooks to preserve David’s decency! Today it can be seen near the statue. It’s an amusing story, but also quite a topical one, as we continue to debate how to respond to contemporary visitors’ sensitivities.
What is the V&A’s most controversial work?
Right now, it’s probably a choice between the 3D-printed “Liberator” gun created by Cody Wilson/ Defence Distributed and the hard-drives containing NSA files leaked by Edward Snowden, which were smashed by staff of The Guardian in the presence of representatives from GCHQ. The smashed drives are on loan to the V&A for the current exhibition All of This Belongs to You. The gun is permanently on display in the Rapid Response Collecting gallery.
What is the institution’s greatest strength?
Its staff, their knowledge and their commitment to uphold the V&A’s reputation for quality
What is its greatest weakness?
The labyrinthine layout of the buildings at South Kensington – a legacy from the 19th century – which ensures that almost every visitor gets lost at some point. Some happily, some not so much. But a new bespoke exhibition gallery and courtyard opening off Exhibition Road in a few years’ time will make a huge improvement to the situation.
What’s unique about the institution?
Its international collection, of over 2.5 million objects, built up since the 1850s by many passionate and often far-sighted curators. When the museum was first built, photography was a recent invention. The V&A was brave enough to collect it and today the photography collection is one of the finest in the world. It includes the earliest photograph of London, a daguerreotype taken by a M. de St Croix in 1839, of the view down Whitehall from Trafalgar Square before Nelson’s Column was built.
What is interesting about the building the museum occupies?
The V&A is sometimes called a “palace for the people”. That ethos is inscribed in the Victorian building. With all its grand Italianate beauty, it was designed as a space for everyone to enjoy and it pays tribute throughout to an everyday world of work, industry and design.
Admission to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s permanent collection is free; there is a fee for most temporary exhibitions. The museum is open from 10am to 5.45pm from Saturday to Thursday, and from 10am to 10pm on Fridays.