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Victoria and Albert Museum
A Visit to the V&A
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is one of the largest and greatest stores of art and culture in the world. Founded in 1852, it sprawls over a nearly thirteen-acre area and contains one of the most comprehensive collections of ceramics, medieval art, and fabric works in the world. Western, Asian, and Islamic holdings represent nearly five thousand years of art and culture from around the world, and only in Italy can a more complete collection of Italian Renaissance works be found. If the purpose is to be a “museum’s museum”, one could say that this goal has been met and exceeded. The exhibits have such an incredible range; with a permanent collection including over 4.5 million objects, there is truly something for every taste and interest inside the V&A’s walls.
Victoria and Albert MuseumClick thumbnail to view full-size
Connection to British Popular Culture
The Victoria and Albert Museum’s connection to British popular culture is a many-headed creature(perhaps in contrast to something as simple, yet enigmatic, as Stonehenge): It not only contains some of the best representations of art, sculpture, design, and beauty from around the world, it also displays some of the most important distinctly British works. Many of the most important examples reside in the aptly named British Galleries; the catalogue includes time-honored pieces by Blake, Leslie, and Mulready, to name only a few. Despite the size of the museum as a whole, the frequently displayed maps and helpful visitor center are amply able to guide even the most internal compass deprived to their intended destinations. Most exhibits were well labeled with informative placards, and because the exhibits were well organized, primarily by period, it was easier than one might expect to find even specific pieces (although I never did see any of William Blake’s work, which was the main thing I was interested in. This is the danger of travelling in a group; certain concessions must be made.)
From my personal perspective, the medieval exhibits are the most intriguing, and hold the strongest connection to what it means to be British. Actually, I would imagine that plenty of people imagine King Arthur, or at least Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Of course, a great deal of what is displayed is actually from around Europe, and a good bit of the most prominently displayed pieces are, in fact, Japanese, it still makes me think of England when I imagine dirty men who prefer to dine with their hands on unfinished wooden tables (almost always round) arming themselves to the teeth to do bloody, glorious battle from horseback in the shadow of a blackened castle wall, as arrows rain down from parapets.
In the interest extracting the most out of a given experience, I often like to ask myself , "What would I do differently or change about this place?". I would find it hard to really suggest any changes in a place like the V&A. What does one change about a gigantic, comprehensive, vault of art, history and knowledge in a world-class, metropolitan city? Maybe they could add more bathrooms? Perhaps in this case I would prefer to enjoy the place for what it is. London wouldn't be the same without it; that much is for certain. If you are planning a trip there, please adjust your itinerary accordingly.
In regard to my expectations, I suppose I was imagining something along the lines of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Victoria and Albert Museum, as it turns out, is to the PMA as Mack Trucks are to SmartCars. They do have some analogous exhibits, to be sure, but the sheer volume, in addition to the incredible architecture and history of the structure itself really put the V&A in a different class, in my humble opinion. The scale of the place truly awed me. I was also mildly shocked at the somewhat relaxed attitude of security in the museum. In Philadelphia, people with wires in their ears constantly trail along behind you; at the V&A I felt a little less like a thief and more like an art aficionado as a result. I’m actually neither of these things, but it’s an arena in which one finds it easy to be polarized to one particular end of the spectrum when one is followed, watched and measured. I have no doubt that the staff at the V&A was watching; I just didn’t feel like I was.
Exit Through My Gift Shop!
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This is a link to my Amazon store. I've hand picked all the coolest British-themed items from the thousands of offerings on Amazon, from teapots to soccer scarves. Enjoy!