London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

The Victoria And Albert Museum (V&A) - Part 1

18/09/2003, By David McIntosh

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 22914 votes

It bills itself as the world’s largest museum of decorative and applied art and many of the exhibits can only be described as breathtaking, others, in turn, will keep the kids entertained and delighted while at the same time teaching them about the way people lived in times past. We are speaking, of course, about London's Victoria & Albert Museum located in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The V&A as it's popularly known is home to a number of innovative galleries and exhibits.

Part of the appeal of the V&A is the sheer breadth and depth of its collection. One moment you can be viewing illustrations for the Winnie the Pooh books and the next learning about the influence of Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh on the Glasgow school of design from the early 20th century. The Victoria and Albert contains almost 5 million objects in its collection and if you walked all of the galleries you would end up walking nearly eight miles - let's just say you’ll probably need to make more than one visit to see all there is to see.

The V&A was founded in 1852 and five years later moved to the site it occupies today. Originally it was known as the South Kensington Museum. In 1899 it was renamed the Victoria and Albert after Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for a new entrance and grand facade. Her late consort Prince Albert had, during his life, had supported the museum's establishment.

The goal was to acquire the best collection possible of decorative art and design - things such as furniture, textiles metalwork along with artwork such as paintings, drawings, prints as well as sculpture. A visit to the V&A will underscore just how well that goal has been met over the years, as the collection has continued to grow to the point where it is now one of the world's greatest collections of items spanning the cultures of Europe, North America, Africa and Asia. Those collections range from ancient times to the present.

At one time the V&A suffered from a poor image (one newspaper called it everyone’s least favorite museum, or something like that) - or rather a fuzzy perception on the part of the public. But in 2001 flush with millions in public lottery money the staff of the Victoria and Albert began work at improving the presentation and getting out the message that in London there exists a museum unlike any other in the world. That year 15 new galleries opened to the public.

The Regency Gallery

While other countries such as Italy and Germany may come to mind when one mentions nations known for being leaders in design, the truth is that Britain has a long and enviable tradition of being a leader in the decorative arts and the field of design (in the 1980s British design became again a pacesetter internationally - think British advertising campaigns as well as the fact that a number of consumer electronics items, while manufactured somewhere else, were designed in British studios).

If you would like to find out more about the history of design in the British Isles; what were the styles during a particular period of history, who were the style setters and what influenced the people who determined what was in good taste and what was not? Then the British Galleries are where you should begin your tour of the Victoria and Albert.

The Three Graces

To tell the story of British taste and design takes two floors - the exhibit tells the story of "what was in" from 1500 through the early 20th century. You’ll find out what sort of jewellery ladies of fashion wore as how the tables in their homes were set come mealtime. What was hot in Tudor times? What was in vogue with the Victorians? The place to find the answers to those and other questions is the British Galleries of the Victoria and Albert.

Now here's one of the great things about the British Galleries - kids will love it. That's because of a number of interactive displays. For example, our daughter was thrilled when she came across a metal gauntlet or glove of the kind once worn by medieval knights. The glove was hanging from a mount and children were invited to put their hands inside and feel how one part of the knight's kit felt.

Other interactive displays included a computer display that allows kids to design a piece of linen and then enter their e-mail address so that the final design can be sent back home to be printed and shown off to friends. Other displays also feature video monitors where visitors can view narrative that show how certain historical items were actually used in earlier times. (to be continued)

David McIntosh

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