How to Navigate London’s Wondrous (and Very Big) V&A Museum

Even for someone who loves getting lost in museums — especially “everything museums” like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York — London’s Victoria and Albert Museum might have been my Waterloo. The statistics are daunting: 5,000 years of artistic production with more than 60,000 works on view (from a collection of some 2.8 million) in about 150 galleries beneath 21 acres of roof.

The V&A typically draws around 3 million annual visitors, but even on the busiest days, the museum has the space and setup to largely avoid the sense of competing with the crowds. Since visiting the permanent collection is free (some exhibitions cost up to 20 pounds, or about $25), once you’re in the door you can just start wandering. Step right for medieval mosaics and Renaissance tapestries or go deep for 1940s Paris fashion, Baroque sculpture and, beyond that, Buddhist art.

It’s easy to spend an entire day in the V&A. Here’s a plan for making the most of your visit. But first a bit of background.

If the British Museum is known as Britain’s attic — an abundance of artistic and cultural relics from the realm and around the globe — then the V&A is the country’s classroom. It, too, is a trove of exemplary works, from exquisite Raphael drawings to groovy 1970s plastic radios; Coptic tunics to Alexander McQueen couture gowns; vividly hued Islamic tiles to a bunch of grand English beds. These objects were displayed not just to delight connoisseurs, but to provide great art and ideas to educate British designers, manufacturers and workers in good taste and technical prowess.

The museum was the pet project of Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, who had seen firsthand that British manufactured goods were not always top of the class. By displaying applied arts (textiles, ceramics, glass and other manufactured objects) alongside fine arts (architecture, painting and sculpture), the new museum would democratize aesthetic appreciation and inspire better designs for better products.

Originally known as the South Kensington Museum, the V&A opened in 1857 in temporary structures while new buildings were constructed. Incorporated into the new museum were libraries and schools for science and art, including one for women. The leading artists of the time, such as Frederic Leighton and William Morris, contributed to its décor. Such was its embrace of modernity, that the world’s first museum exhibition of photography (the medium was “invented’ only in the 1820s) was held here in 1858.

Though Prince Albert died in 1861, the museum continued to expand. In 1899, Queen Victoria laid the cornerstone of a grand new entrance wing along Cromwell Road and renamed the complex the Victoria and Albert Museum.

If that sounds fusty, it’s not. More than 165 years after its opening, the V&A’s pioneering spirit hasn’t faded. Its fashion blockbusters, like “Naomi: In Fashion,” celebrating the model Naomi Campbell (opening June 22), are must-see shows. And its outreach programs, studio classes and parties engage the public as few museums do. Recently, the V&A’s reach has been growing, with offshoots such as the Scottish V&A Dundee, a kid-centric Young V&A and two new museum buildings — one featuring nearly 250,000 works — opening in East London in 2025.

Many contemporary artists and designers claim the V&A as among their favorite museums, and one to which they return again and again. Though neither artist nor designer, I, too, claim the V&A as a favorite museum and have visited dozens of times, often for less than an hour just to wow my young kids with the monumental plaster casts of European monuments or even just to get out of the rain.

But I knew there were still sections I’d never visited. So, after an absence of three years, I spent a day there and came up with a game plan for others to navigate those vast halls.

Get there at 10 a.m., when the doors open, so you can breeze through the ground-floor galleries while they are still virtually empty and then head to more remote parts.

Since fabrics are fragile and fade, the fashion exhibits are changed regularly and there’s always something fresh and engaging to see. From there, wind past the entrance through the arts of Asia, from the elegantly simple furniture of Ming China to the intricately carved lacquerware of Japan, to the eye-poppingly vivid blue tile reliefs and stunning silk carpets such as the 16th-century Ardibil carpet from Persia.

Then into the Cast Courts, three huge galleries packed with full-size reproductions — plaster and metal casts — of sculptures and building fragments from around Europe. Exact copies of medieval tombs line the floor while masterpieces like Michelangelo’s David, Trajan’s Column and Renaissance church facades rise toward the ceiling. One can easily get stuck here, awed by the scale and charmed by the concept of corralling massive replicas from across the centuries into a playground for architecture buffs.

From there it’s an easy slide into the adjacent medieval and Renaissance galleries, which cover Europe from 300 to 1600, and where the colorful fourth- and fifth-century tapestry fragments on view or the radiant gold-backed mosaics from Ravenna, Italy, reveal that the Dark Ages were not entirely devoid of light and color.

The later galleries reveal just how connected and sophisticated many parts of Europe were in the Renaissance. Exquisite regional products — metalwork and armor from Germany, shimmering lusterware ceramics from Spain, tapestries from Brussels — became sought after on an international marketplace.

In such a sprawling museum, there is no single logical or even chronological path to follow. For many, that’s part of the V&A’s appeal: the quirky juxtapositions one encounters roaming it’s six floors (the ground floor is numbered zero, so the “fourth floor” is actually the fifth level; the V&A also has a -1 basement level).

So on my visit, once the galleries started filling up at midday, I took the elevator to the remote fourth-floor ceramics galleries and then made my way to the lower floors.

On the fourth floor, it feels as if virtually everything ever made of clay or porcelain — Ming, majolica, Meissen, you name it — is displayed in floor-to-ceiling cases, including stacks of Chinese bowls salvaged from a ship that sank in 1400 off the Malay Peninsula.

Just when you think one can’t stretch the clay any further, you get to a display about Josiah Wedgwood and his innovative Jasperware that became the rage around the world in the 18th century. (The V&A also has an outpost in Stoke-on-Trent dedicated entirely to Wedgwood). The remaining fourth-floor galleries showcase furniture from the last 600 years.

The third floor offers a similar range of media and epochs — from international glass in all its facets to architectural models. One might expect Venetian Murano glass to reign supreme, but the quirky and colorful 18th-century German enameled glass, as well as green-hued glasses and goblets adorned with blobs of glass steal the show.

On the second floor, a network of long galleries offers deep dives into religious stained glass, small-scale bronze sculptures, English paintings and drawings, as well as tapestries. Nearby, gorgeous murals by Frederic Leighton push the V&A propaganda in themes like “The Arts Applied to War” and “The Arts Applied to Peace.”

Also on the second floor, the Photography Center recently expanded its galleries to become Britain’s largest photography exhibition center. Part of a display called “Design: 1900-Now,” features a recent acquisition: a store-bought snorkeling mask that had been adapted by an Italian designer into a functioning oxygen mask during the darkest days of the Covid crisis in 2020.

In a country famous for its crown jewels, the V&A’s spot-lit jewelry gallery packs in everything from fifth-century Byzantine bracelets to jaunty 1970s body jewelry. Standouts include the Townshend jewels — a virtual encyclopedia of gemstones, from colored diamonds to opals, each set in individual rings and displayed in swirls of brilliant color.

And finally, stretching almost across the entire second floor is a display of every imaginable type of ironwork. Seeing these works, such as the monumental 19th-century Gothic Revival choir screen from Salisbury Cathedral, calls to mind the Goethe quote that “architecture is frozen music.”

Even if you’re not hungry, head to the ground level to the Refreshment Rooms, the world’s first museum cafe, which opened in 1868. Designed by the leading talents of the day — James Gamble, William Morris, Philip Webb, Edward Burne-Jones and Edward J. Poynter — the original decoration remains largely intact, a snapshot of Victorian modernity. Back in the day, each room had a different menu and proposed clientele, but today, for about £10, visitors can choose from a buffet of hot English fare, quiches, sandwiches, beer, wine or soft drinks, and take their meal into whichever room they find most pleasing.

Back in the galleries, I had saved what I considered the best for last: some two dozen British galleries (spread between levels 1 and 3) that tell the country’s history from the Tudors to the Victorians through paintings, furniture, clothing, musical instruments, textiles and truly fabulous beds, including the Great Bed of Ware, a massive four-poster built in 1590 for an inn. It measures nearly 11 feet on each side, supposedly able to accommodate four couples. Centuries-old graffiti covers practically every plank, and its fame merited a mention in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”: “… as many lies as will lie in thy sheet of paper, although the sheet were big enough for the bed of Ware.”

And then finally, the most extraordinary works in the museum, shown in a cathedral-like space: the famous Rafael cartoons for the tapestries that were created to adorn the Sistine Chapel in 1515-16. Commissioned by Pope Leo X, Raphael painted the designs on paper, which would have been used as the guide for the weavers to follow. Now owned by King Charles III and considered among the greatest works of Renaissance art, they were created as part of a manufacturing process, so it seems wholly appropriate they are on loan to the V&A, where fine art and manufacturing go hand in hand.

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