Victoria and Albert (V&A) is the world's largest museum of decorative arts and design. Its history goes back to the Victorian age, even before gas lights were invented. The biggest challenge when visiting the V&A is time and space. Consider this — there are seven miles of galleries spanning several multi-level buildings.
Our best advice to navigate the V&A, and one of the best ways to get a handle on artwork, is to join an hour-long guided introductory tour that covers six or eight works. There are also many lectures & talks, workshops, and events.
The V&A stages many successful temporary exhibitions every year. http://www.vam.ac.uk/whatson/
So, before you go, check on their current list of special events and latest exhibits before you leave home.
In simple terms, the pieces of art & decoration at the Victoria & Albert Museum are divided into four main collections —
1. Raphael's Cartoons – 1515 Commissioned by Pope Leo X, Raphael produced a series of tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. See his working designs, including the Miraculous Draft of the Fishes. Go directly to Room 48a on Level 1 of the V&A South Kensington.
2. Wine Cup of Shah Jahan – 1657 This polished white wine jade cup was made for emperor Shah Jahan, the man who built the Taj Mahal. The goat's head motif is a remarkable achievement. Exceptional skill was needed to grind the hard stone into a delicate design. Go to Room 41, Case 19 in the South Asia gallery. View…
3. The Courtyard Garden Enter from Cromwell Road to see the facade of the original 1857 buildings and decoration showing Queen Victoria handing out prizes to winners at the Great Exhibition. The gardens have recently undergone a makeover and in summer, there is an outdoor cafe.
4. Unicorn Tapestry – 1500 Woven in Flanders, this tapestry features a unicorn against a millefleurs backdrop, meaning a thousand flowers. This was a very popular style in the 15th and 16th century in Northern France and Flanders. The detailed work is believed to be a fragment of an even larger tapestry. Go to Room 94 in Tapestries. View…
5. Donatello's Reliefs – 1430-50 These exquisite delicate marble reliefs are among the greatest fine-art treasures of the museum. Perhaps the most impressive of them is The Dead Christ tended by Angels. Go to the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. View…
6. The British Galleries 15 galleries, 4,000 arts & crafts pieces – the British Galleries show the innovations from the 16th to 20th centuries. Highlights are found in Room 53 featuring Rococo Style, and Room 52a featuring Britain's Discovery Area. View…
You can view over 14,000 outfits & accessories, dating from 1600 to today, in the vast costume collection. Some of the oldest are medieval items including the wedding suit of James II of England, currently in storage.
In 1971, Cecil Beaton curated an exhibition of 20th-century high-fashion including gowns worn by leading socialites and actresses including Audrey Hepburn. In 2002, designs by Vivienne Westwood, Coco Chanel, Hubert de Givenchy, Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, Guy Laroche, Zandra Rhodes, Mary Quant, Christian Lacroix, and Pierre Cardin were added.
The V&A's ongoing textile and dress conservation team restores damaged outfits like the 1954 Dior outfit, Zemire. In 2008 it was restored to mint condition for the Golden Age of Couture exhibition.
The Cast Courts in the Sculpture Wing is a must-see destination.
There you find the largest collection of casts made from post-classical sculptures. The Italian Renaissance collection and the East Asian collection are among the best in Europe.
In two large, skylit rooms, two-storeys high, are hundreds of plaster casts of sculptures, friezes and tombs, including a full-scale replica of Trajan's Column and Michelangelo's David. In 2004 the partitions that divided the two courts were removed to allow for spectacular views from above.
• Its origins go back to the Great Exhibition of 1851, when it was introduced as the Museum of Manufactures in Brompton in the outskirts of London.
• It was renamed and relocated to South Kensington in honour of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. She wanted to call it the Albert Museum.
• Today, the area of Kensington is known as Albertopolis due to all things Albert…the Albert Memorial, and the Royal Albert Hall.
• Queen Victoria attended the official opening on June 22, 1857. The following year, late night openings were introduced with the invention of gas lighting!
• Queen Victoria was shocked by the nudity of the full-size plaster-cast of Michelangelo's'David. A fig leaf was made, and hung on David when dignitaries visited.
• In the early years the practical use of the collection was emphasized, as opposed to "High Art", to appeal to all classes of Londoners.
• It was the first museum in the world with a public restaurant offering first and second class menus, and a third class service for "mechanics and all workmen employed at the Museum Buildings and even for the humble working-class visitors".
• In 1913, Harrods department store made a substantial donation of 1,442 outfits, accessories and jewellery.
• In 1939, during the outbreak of World War II, most of the collection was sent for protection to a quarry in Wiltshire.
• In 1980, Roy Strong renamed the museum "The Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Museum of Art and Design". But we don't think that really stuck!