It’s our last trip down Exhibition Road in London, to the bottom corner, to the substantial building that was once known as the South Kensington Museum, then the Victoria and Albert Museum, and now simply the V&A. The V&A blurs the division between the already loose definitions of museum and gallery, it is both. It doesn’t have just paintings, the V&A celebrates the applied and decorative arts, and is the largest museum of this kind in the world.
The museum’s life, like that of the nearby Science Museum, began from the metaphoric ashes of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and its first director was Henry Cole, an inventor and civil servant who is also credited with the world’s first commercial Christmas card in 1843. The exhibition, which had brought manufactured goods from all over the Empire, needed a home for the collection after the exhibition finished. The Museum of Manufacture as it was known, and which covered both arts and sciences, moved about London until it came to settle in Brompton Park House in South Kensington. The building was extended and offered the world’s first, now expected feature of all museums large or small, the refreshment rooms, which was opened in 1857 by the Queen Victoria.
The collection was eventually split up with ‘high art’ going to the National Gallery, the sciences to a new location on Exhibition Road – The Science Museum – and the rest, the in-between things, staying put. In 1899 the Aston Webb extension was added, and the museum renamed by Queen Victoria, to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The museum evolved and grew with a new entrance on Exhibition Road, a porcelain courtyard and an underground gallery; this expansion was completed in 2017, and by then the museum had established itself as the V&A.
What are the decorative arts? The clue is probably in the museum’s full historic title, the National Museum of Art and Design. It is the design aspect that brings together this collection, which is displayed in large, themed regional galleries divided by type including furniture, ceramics, photography, sculpture, architecture, jewellery. It takes hours and hours to view everything.
Fancy some medieval stained glass, or Rodin sculptures or maybe the office furniture designed for Edgar Kaufmann? Or perhaps dresses by Christian Dior? And there still paintings, by the like of Constable, so the V&A hasn’t quite lost the art gallery perspective either.
With its nearly 3 million objects and 145 galleries, it can certainly claim the largest title. 5000 years of eclectic art, from all over the world, split into four departments. Asia is one on its own and showcases a sizeable amount of Islamic art; furniture, textiles and fashion; sculpture, metalwork, ceramics and glass; word and image (the photography collection is due in part to Henry Cole being an enthusiast for electroplating).
It feels like a bottomless pit and likely to keep you busy for days if your interests in artwork is broad. Personally, I would head straight for the glassware galleries and lose myself there. What about you?