My recent trip to Britain left me without much time to do more than conference. Luckily, the night before I left to return to the US was also the night that the Victoria & Albert museum was open late. I still get that little thrill at going to the V&A that I used to get as a kid visiting museums. I have a lot of museums I love, but the V&A is always at the top of the list. On this visit, I asked myself, “Self, why do you like the V&A so much.” I answered thusly:
1. It’s a museum of style. OK, officially is is a museum of “design and art,” but at its heart, it is all about the history of style, from a very particular perspective. This is a guide to the cosmopolitanism of distinction: an appreciation of other cultures that cements the visitor’s position in his or her own.
I walked by a young couple (it seems that it is also a “date” spot) in their late teens or early twenties, as they peered at a set of samurai armour. “So, this is art, too, then.” “Of course.” “Does it have to be ugly to be art?” Not if you are “cultured,” I think, reading the girl’s exasperation.
2. It’s a museum of the real. The focus is heavily on the decorative arts, the kinds of things uneducated eyes like my own recognize as an art of the everyday. There is a gallary dedicated to fashion; of the 1700s and of the 70s. There are musical instruments, locks, and pillow boxes.
3. It’s a museum of consumption. The museum browser finds himself perpetually on the edge of stumbling into Home Depot. An entire exhibit of mosaic tiles that are stunningly beautiful somehow would look just perfect in the new sunroom. An eighth-mile long gallery of cast and wrought iron, strangely torn from the garden and placed on pale white gallery walls, lacks only price tags. A similar feeling spills into each gallery. I walk by an older couple, woman on the arm of the man, as the quickly pass judgment on early Chinese teapots, some of them marked as fakes that have been passed off as original and then given to the museum. “Oh, that’s simply horrible,” says the woman. “How could anyone have thought it was real?” “Oh, it’s not that bad,” says the gentleman through a thick mustache, with the obvious intent of irritating.
4. It’s a museum that places experience first. Not only is it dedicated to the decorative arts, but it uses the decorative arts to decorate. There are foldable stools to be picked up at the head of some galleries, in case you decide you need an impromptu sit. Generally, seating throughout the museum is designed to match the exhibit as closely as possible. There is expansive space between exhibits, and the maze-like intersection of galleries invites strolling. The interactive video displays, now ubiquitous in museums, are actually as informative and interesting as the exhibits themselves.
5. It’s free. There is a suggested £3 donation, but it is not as insistent as such donations seem to be at other museums. For the patron like me, who visits only once every few years, this doesn’t really matter, but as I went through the museum, I noticed that some people came to eat their lunch, or when they had only an hour free.
6. It’s a museum that is more than a building. Of course, all museums try to integrate with the community, but the V&A offers seminars and lectures, integrates with schools, and provides an image database via the internet.
Some of these comments might seem to be sniping in part, but they shouldn’t be taken that way. Visiting the V&A remains an exciting experience for me. It’s hard to focus on one exhibit for too long, as the rest of the museum seems to want to pull you along to see more, and you are never quite sure what corners of the building have remained hidden away this time. There are a lot of museums and other tourist attractions that really are worth seeing in London, but next time you are in town, you should definitely add the V&A to your list.