The V&A is one of the world’s – let alone London's – most magnificent museums, its foundation stone laid on this site by Queen Victoria in her last official public engagement in 1899. It is a superb showcase for applied arts from around the world, appreciably calmer than its tearaway cousins on the other side of Exhibition Road. Some 150 grand galleries on seven floors contain countless pieces of furniture, ceramics, sculpture, paintings, posters, jewellery, metalwork, glass, textiles and dress, spanning several centuries. Items are grouped by theme, origin or age: for advice, tap the patient staff, who field a formidable combination of leaflets, floor plans, general knowledge and polite concern.
Highlights include the seven Raphael Cartoons painted in 1515 as tapestry designs for the Sistine Chapel; the finest collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture outside Italy; the Ardabil carpet, the world’s oldest and arguably most splendid floor covering, in the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art; and the Luck of Edenhall, a thirteenth-century glass beaker from Syria. The Fashion galleries run from eighteenth-century court dress right up to contemporary chiffon numbers; the Architecture gallery has videos, models, plans and descriptions of various styles; and the famous Photography collection holds over 500,000 images.
Over more than a decade, the V&A’s on-going FuturePlan transformation has been a revelation. The completely refurbished Medieval & Renaissance Galleries are stunning, but there are many other eye-catching new or redisplayed exhibits: they were preceded by the restored mosaic floors and beautiful stained glass of the fourteenth- to seventeenth-century sculpture rooms, just off the central John Madejski Garden, and followed by the Furniture Galleries – an immediate hit on opening in late 2012. On a smaller scale, the Gilbert Collection of silver, gold and gemmed ornaments arrived from Somerset House; the Ceramics Galleries have been renovated and supplemented with an eye-catching bridge; there’s lovely Buddhist sculpture in the Robert HN Ho Family Foundation Galleries; and the Theatre & Performance Galleries took over where Covent Garden’s defunct Theatre Museum left off.
Newer additions include the museum's 'Rapid Response Collection' features examples of contemporary design and architecture, particularly those that represent important events and current affairs. The ambitious Europe 1600-1815 galleries, which cost £12.5m, will open in December 2015. A stunning 4m-long table fountain – painstakingly reconstructed from eighteenth-century fragments – is the centrepiece of seven new galleries, taking a chronological and thematic approach to European clothes, furnishings and other artefacts. The Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art reopened in November 2015, exhibiting 550 works from the sixth century to the present day. Look out for the first ever Sony Walkman, a Hello Kitty rice cooker and an origami outfit by Issey Miyake. See a slideshow of highlights from the collection.