The V&A is the greatest museum of art and design, a world treasure house with collections of fabulous scope and diversity. The museum holds over 3000 years worth of artefacts from many of the world's richest cultures.
The Victoria & Albert Museum is the world's largest museum of decorative arts and design, and is home to over 4.5 million objects from around the world. With galleries from antiquity to the present day that hail from North America, Europe, East and South Asia, and North Africa, the V&A can truly be called a museum that represents all of humanity. Laid out in mostly chronological fashion, the V&A is easy to navigate and is organized by geographic location. The ground floor, which houses the majority of the museum's galleries, is where you should spend the bulk of your time during your visit.
When you first enter the museum, head to your right, you will see the museum's collection of medieval and Renaissance-era art from 1350-1600. The first room houses marble statues, doorways, monuments, fountains, roundels, and other objects that highlight the explosion of artistic creativity that was burgeoning during that time and place. One of the highlights is the statue “Samson Slaying a Philistine” by Giovanni Bologna. Bologna, one of the most famous and influential sculptors of his day, made the piece for the powerful Francesco de' Medici. The following room features primarily religious art from the era, including some beautiful stain glass art, religious altar pieces, and a chancel taken from a church. The chancel was the most important area of the church, as Mass was celebrated there, and only members of the clergy or those directly involved in Mass could go near it. If you go a floor down, you can view the museum's collection of objects from Europe c. 300-1500.
Like most art from this time period, almost every object in these galleries is religious in some manner. However, that does not detract from the beauty of some of the items gathered here. Some items to see are early choir book pages, the intricately designed embroidered panels and tapestries, and the elaborate altar crosses which depict religious imagery and holy saints. One altar cross is very large in size and decorated with gold and it serves as a symbol of the church's power at the time. This gallery also houses some lavish embroidery used for high-ranking clergymen that were to be worn in church processions. One famous piece of embroidery is the Butler-Bowden Cape (c. 1330-1350) which is detailed with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, who is surrounded by apostles, saints, and pearl, glass, and metal details. For those who would like to try on some tunics from this era, there is a place where you can do just that. In the very same room is a photograph of a section of the famous Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the events of the Norman invasion of England in 1066. Two other objects you need to see from this section are the reproduction of the World Map c. 1300 and the famous Boar and Bear Hunt Tapestry c. 1425-30. The map shows numerous events from the past, and although America and Australia are missing the map makers did know that the world was round, not flat. The tapestry, which hails from southern Netherlands, shows nobles hunting boars and bears, and the events of the hunt unfold from left to right. An interactive screen lets you learn all about the tapestry and the events within it, from hunting at the time to the unique fashion depicted in the tapestry to the way the tapestry itself was made.
Once you go back up to the ground floor, you should make your way to the Raphael Exhibit. The room houses the seven surviving prints of the original ten that comprised the Raphael Cartoons. Commissioned by Pope Leo X and painted by Raphael in 1515-1516, the cartoons were full-scale designs for tapestries that were meant to cover the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. They are called cartoons as the word “cartoon” is derived from the Italian word “cartone,” meaning a large sheet of paper or a preparatory design. Aside from some minor color fade, the paintings remain in a remarkable state of preservation. The remainder of the floor is home to the museum's vast collections from East and South Asia. In the South Asian wing of the floor, I recommend that you see the large Bhairava Mask, which is an angry, vengeful manifestation of the god Shiva. Alcohol was poured into the mouth from the rear of the mask, as people from the time believed that drinking from the mask gave you blessings from the Gods. Other objects you should see in these galleries include the statues of the Hindu God Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance and the large collection of carpets and hangings the museum has. The famous Ardabil Carpet, one of the largest and finest Islamic carpets in existence, adorns the floor of the museum. As you move from South Asia to East Asia, you will have the opportunity to check out many objects from the cultures of Thailand, China, Japan, and Korea. There are many beautiful objects to see here, including jars, furniture, fashion, sculptures, an imperial throne, and even some Samurai garb and weaponry.
Once you have adequately viewed the galleries on the ground floor, you should pay a visit to the first floor which focuses on objects from Britain and the rest of Europe. If you take the stairs up from the right side of the museum, you will be able to walk through a Roman/Renaissance style city walk that is contrasted by modern couches along the wall, allowing you a brief reprieve from all the walking you have been undoubtedly doing. In the first floor you will be able to see more art and designs from Renaissance-era Europe, including a collection of works from the famous sculptor Donatello. Also on the first floor is an exhibition dedicated solely to Britain from 1500-1700. The low lighting of this gallery immerses you in the art and high-class lifestyle from this time period. Some of the highlights here include a recreation of a regal, candle-lit room, and the recreation of a parlour room from 1727. Both of these rooms highlight how this gallery does such a good job of representing British culture and life from this time period, albeit with a sole focus on the upper class.
Finally, you should make your way up to the second floor where you will see the museum's large collection of gold, silver, metalware, and ironworks. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, this giant choir screen is a supreme achievement of ironwork in the Gothic Revival style. When you see it, it really is overwhelming and it is the most notable object on the third floor. Initially dismantled in 1964, the screen was finally fully restored in 2001. You can learn all about this process thanks to the wealth of information the museum provides right next to the screen.
Overall, the V&A is a massive museum with much to see that showcases art in all its forms throughout human history. Even if you don't wish to delve too deep into any one gallery here, there is so much eye-candy and aesthetically beautiful objects here that just strolling through this museum would never be boring. There is always something new to see here, something wonderful to take in and enjoy.
-By Phillip Storm, Arts Correspondent, VisitMuseums.com
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