The Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington, London is always a treat to get lost in. More than in most museums, you can’t always be sure what you’ll find around the next corner.
This is because, unlike most museums, the V&A takes a largely material, rather than chronological, approach to its collections. This is a result of its founding; the V&A was founded in 1852 as a ‘Museum of Manufactures’, intended to demonstrate to craftspeople and designers the standards that they should be aspiring to. Its founding purpose is still visible today, hardwired into the galleries, exhibitions and – at least for the time being – into the staffing arrangements.
And this is the strength of the V&A; a visitor can arrive intending to see the Great Bed of Ware (made famous by Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night) in the British Galleries, but can leave mesmerised by Beyoncé’s butterfly ring in the Jewellery Gallery, or having taken a breather inside a replica of Trajan’s Column in the Cast Courts, or having been unexpectedly fascinated by the display of wrought iron railings in the Ironwork Galleries.
Whenever I visit the V&A, I head straight to the Rapid Response Collecting galleries on the second floor. This is a really exciting area which only opened in 2014, making it one of the newer developments in the museum. The curators responsible for this collection acquire objects which shed light on recent major events, ranging in focus from politics and design to fashion and technology. The objects in these displays are rotated on a regular basis, making room for the most up-to-the-minute stories. On different visits, I have seen lift cables, a swimsuit designed for female Muslim swimmers, a misleading leaflet printed by the Vote Leave campaign during the Brexit vote, a menstrual cup and an extinction rebellion flag. There’s always something new and instantly recognisable in this gallery, and it’s a great way to whet the appetite for what’s to come.
Another regular stop on my V&A visits is the Theatre & Performance Galleries, which I like to enter via the Tapestry Room. This is a dark and wonderfully cool temperature-controlled space with huge tapestries lining the wall. As an enthusiastic cross-stitcher, they always blow me away. Once I’ve had my fill of embroidery I head into Theatre & Performance. In stark contrast to the Tapestry Room, these galleries are filled with the glitz and glamour of show business: costumes from the stage musicals of Wicked and The Lion King jostle for attention next to Vivien Leigh’s Best Actress Oscar (won for A Streetcar Named Desire) and outfits worn by Elton John. Set designs, costume designs and promotional posters from various productions line the walls. And impossible to miss is Joey. Joey is the life-sized horse puppet used in the West End adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. I was taken to see War Horse at the National Theatre when I was about 11 (even though I harboured an intense apathy towards Morpurgo), and pretty much all I remember of it 14 years later is Joey, so being able to see him up close after seeing him in action is quite special. It also allows you to get a sense of the skill it must take to operate him – on stage there are three actors moving him at once.
Once I’ve had a catch up with my old friend Joey, I head to the ground floor and the South Asia Gallery, which houses a display of some of my favourite objects in the museum: Indian musical instruments. It is admittedly a small selection, but it’s impressive nonetheless. The centrepiece is a bin-sitar, a long string instrument with a resonator made from a dried gourd at either end to enhance the sound. The gourds are intricately painted with images of Vishnu and other Hindu gods. This is my personal favourite because I have a slight obsession with objects made from gourds. There is also a much smaller – but still striking – string instrument, a sarangi, which is inlaid with a delicate ivory fish motif. I only wish they had a recording of the instruments being played to listen to in the gallery, to really bring the display to life.
When talking about the South Asia Gallery, it would feel dishonest to sidestep the V&A’s colonial roots, as this is one of the areas of the collection where this element of the museum’s history is most evident. Prominently displayed in the Gallery is ‘Tippoo’s Tiger’, a mechanical pipe organ in the shape of a tiger mauling a British soldier. This object was crafted for Tipu Sultan, the 18th century leader of the Kingdom of Mysore in India, but was looted by the troops of the East India Company in 1799 during the siege in which Tipu Sultan was killed. It was then housed at the company’s India Museum in London before the V&A took over most of its collections in 1879. As conversations around decolonisation and repatriation continue in the heritage sector, it will be interesting to see how the V&A’s approach to its South Asia Gallery – and its collections as a whole – might develop in response.
After my stop in the South Asia Gallery, I move onto the Photography Centre, back up on the second floor. This is a gallery which I only discovered on my most recent visit to the V&A, in February 2020, but which has been open since 2018. It still feels new – the walls are painted a different bright colour in each room, which makes a refreshing change from the ‘white box’ model of a lot of museums and complements the relatively modern art form of photography well. The gallery displays iconic images from the history of photography, and there’s a striking display of vintage cameras at the entrance. Unfortunately, when I visited, I was quite pressed for time and didn’t get to take these galleries in in as much detail as I’d have liked. In fact, I’m pretty sure I entered at the exit and went through in reverse order. But on my next visit to the V&A I’ll be making a beeline for the Photography Centre and really taking my time.
Whenever I’m at the V&A, before I leave, I have to pay a visit to the ground floor Cast Courts where plaster casts of some of the world’s most iconic sculptures and architecture are on display. I go here to sit inside the replica of Trajan’s Column. This hidden seating area always feels like a secret oasis among the crowds, and I like having a peaceful moment with the museum before I go. Then, waving goodbye to a cast of Michael Angelo’s David, I head back out under the museum’s white marble archway, onto Cromwell Gardens and down into the tube.
Temporary exhibitions: variable, but usually around £15-£20
Opening hours: currently closed due to Covid-19
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Beth Arscott has been volunteering and working in the heritage sector since 2015, and has a BA in Renaissance & Modern History and an MA in Art Gallery & Museum Studies. Beth’s museum roles have mainly been in Collections, and she has worked for several national museums and heritage organisations. Beth currently lives in London with her flatmate, several dying houseplants and a clutch of ornamental gourds.