It comes to something when a museum can lay claim to having been opened as Queen Victoria’s last public engagement. In 1899, the current premises of the V&A enjoyed that privilege. It has gone on to become one of the world’s – let alone London’s – most magnificent museums. It is a superb showcase for applied arts from around the globe, appreciably calmer than its tearaway cousins the Science Museum and Natural History Museum on the other side of Exhibition Road. All three museums would be must-visits in another city, but it is the sheer beauty of the V&A that keeps it closest to our heart.
The details? There are some 150 grand galleries over seven floors. They contain countless pieces of furniture, ceramics, sculpture, paintings, posters, jewellery, metalwork, glass, textiles and dress, spanning several centuries. You could run through the highlights for the rest of this guide, but key artefacts 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 13th-century glass beaker from Syria. The fashion galleries run from 18th-century court dress right up to contemporary chiffon numbers, while the architecture gallery has videos, models, plans and descriptions of various styles.
Over more than a decade, the V&A’s ongoing FuturePlan transformation has been a revelation – more than 85 percent of its public spaces have been restored and redesigned. 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 14th- to 17th-century sculpture rooms, just off the central John Madejski Garden, and followed by the Furniture Galleries – another immediate hit. The ambitious Europe 1600-1815 Galleries – centred around a stunning four-metre-long table fountain, painstakingly reconstructed from 18th-century fragments – collect European clothes, furnishings and other artefacts. Or there’s the Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art, exhibiting 550 works running from the sixth century AD to the first Sony Walkman and an origami outfit by Issey Miyake. On a smaller scale, the Ceramics Galleries have been renovated and supplemented with an eye-catching bridge; 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’, which features examples of contemporary design and architecture reflecting important news events, while the major temporary exhibitions – Alexander McQueen, David Bowie and Frida Kahlo – are frequently blockbuster sell-outs.
Summer 2017 saw the opening of a new entrance, directly into the heart of the museum from Exhibition Road, through the porcelain-tiled Sackler Courtyard to the purpose-built Sainsbury Gallery. It’s a fitting introduction to a fabulous museum.
Read about our favourite seven exhibits at the V&A or see more of London's best museums