Art And Design Treasures At London’s V&A

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Arches and decorative works on the entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum
A photographic sampling of the impressive collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England

Museums are one of the many businesses and institutions that have been drastically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year. Many have closed their doors to the public, some for long stretches of time, others perhaps for multiple shorter periods. When they have been open, they may have had to make significant changes to how visitors experience the museum and limit the number of visitors. The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, England is one museum that has been affected. Layoffs and restructuring are the result.

As I read recent articles about the changes, I was reminded of my own visit to the V&A in 2013. I spent several wonderful hours going through the museum and could easily have spent many more going through its extensive collection of exhibits.

The V&A is considered the “mother” of decorative art museums all over the world. It houses the world’s largest collection of decorative arts and design. There are over 2.3 million objects in its permanent collection spanning over 5,000 years of human creativity.

The museum was founded in 1852 and originally called the Museum of Manufacturers. It had two different locations before moving to the current site on Cromwell Road in 1854, at which time it became known as the South Kensington Museum. Queen Victoria officially opened the museum on June 20, 1857. She returned in 1899 to lay the foundation stone of the Aston Webb building to the left of the main entrance. It was then that the museum was renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Chandelier of green and blue glass balls and spikes by Dale Chihuly hanging in entrance of Victoria and Albert Museum
Chandelier by Dale Chihuly in the main entranceway

The V&A is partially funded via government grants. As is the case with so many of London’s great museums, entrance to its permanent galleries is free. But approximately 55% to 60% of its funding comes from special exhibits, events, membership, merchandising, and sponsorship. Much of that has stopped because of the pandemic, which hit after three of the museum’s most successful years. Visitor figures were down 85% in 2020. The museum did receive some emergency government support that allowed it to survive into 2021, but they estimate it will take several years to recover financially.

The changes at the museum involve job cuts and restructuring of the curatorial departments to form more inter-disciplinary teams. The museum’s collection is not changing nor are the gallery spaces, but curators will be more stretched. It is expected that the visitor experience will be unchanged. I hope that turns out to be true because this is an impressive museum. If you are interested in reading more about the reaction to the restructuring, here are links to articles in the Guardian, The Art Newspaper, and on the Museums Association site.

To give just a tiny glimpse into the type and breadth of materials in the V&A, following are a few photos from my visit. Keep in mind these photos represent a miniscule portion of the collection and, although they show a variety of types of pieces, they still don’t reflect the full variety of the museum’s collection.

14th century tapestry showing episodes from the romance of Tristan and Isolde
Wall Hanging, circa 1370-1400, from Germany, wool motifs applied to contrasting woolen ground with edgings in gilded leather; shows episodes from the romance of Tristan and Isolde
A series of stained glass windows originally from a Cistercian abbey
Stained glass from Mariawald, the cloister of a Cistercian abbey near Cologne, circa 1520-1530 with two central windows reconstructed to show how they would have originally appeared
Tin-glazed terracota artwork with blue background and white angelic figures around a central white Madonna
The Assumption of the Virgin altarpiece, tin-glazed terracotta, circa 1486-1525, workshop of Andrea dell Robbia, Florence, Italy
Wide-skirted brocade dress in white with gold embroidery worn by woman of court in England in 18th century
Mantua, circa 1755-1760, England. The brocade ensemble illustrates the style of dress worn by women at court in England at that time.
Rings set with different stones display in a series of concentric circles at the V&A
In the Jewelry section, a collection of rings with varying stones
An open choir book from the 14th century showing a decorated page and lines of Latin song words on staffsVicto
Choir book, circa 1380
Open pages of one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks
Leonardo da Vinci Notebook
Shakespeare Folio open to page with his photo on the right and a message to the reader on the left
Shakespeare’s First Folio, published 1623, seven years after his death. It is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Without this edition, 18 of his plays would be totally unknown.
Theatre costume dress-up in gown of yellow and blue
The museum’s extensive theatre and stage collection included a dress-up section that I had some fun with on my visit. Is this likely to be a thing of the past, even post-pandemic?
Wooden carved bed of the 1590s with pillars on all four bedposts and red and yellow curtains to enclose bed
The Great Bed of Ware, designed by Hans Vrederman de Vries, circa 1590-1600, Ware, England. It is a typical style of carved wooden beds of the 1590s, but it is remarkable for its large size.
19th century grand piano with gold-coloured flower design covering the wood
Edward Burne-Jones Grand piano, circa 1883-1885, design based on the case and stand of a harpsichord
Looking down into the V&A cast room
Cast room
Plaster cast columns at V&A
Plaster cast items. Tower at front is Trajan’s column by Monsieur Oudry, circa 1864. Tower at back to right of that is a copy of a tabernacle, circa 1876, Belgium
Blue tilework around a chimney on display at V&A
Tilework chimneypiece, Turkey, circa 1731
Marble sculpture of Handel playing lyre while a cherub at his feet transcribes
George Frederick Handel, marble sculpture by Louis Francois Roubiliac, circa 1738, Britain
People sitting on the lawn of the V&A courtyard with the beautfiul red stone walls of the museum surrounding them
The V&A has a beautiful courtyard in which to enjoy lunch or a short rest. Will groups of people like this become normal again?

Note that the museum in currently closed due to pandemic restrictions. It is expected that museums in London will be allowed to reopen in May 2021. In the meantime its collection is available for online browsing.

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Art and Design Treasures at London's V&A: photographic sampling of the impressive collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England

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