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Victoria and Albert Museum

Over 2,000 Years of Human Creativity

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is Britain’s leading museum of art & design. Boasting a collection of some 1¼ million objects from ancient ceramics to modern fashion, the museum is just too big to handle, even with only 63,660 items on display. You therefore might want to start with the Twenty Treasures map that presents twenty highlights from the collection, which include the Raphael cartoons, Tipu’s tiger, the Ardabil carpet, Giambologna’s Samson Slaying a Philistine, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, the Devonshire hunting tapestries, and The Three Graces by Antonio Canova. Not included on the map are treasures such as Bernini’s Neptune & Triton and the many striking artefacts exemplifying the Arts & Crafts movement led by William Morris, simply because the V&A holds too many highlights to highlight them all.

The Ardabil carpet at the Victoria and Albert Museum
The central medallion of the Ardabil carpet (detail)

Last year, when we visited the V&A, the Twenty Treasures map did not yet exist, or it was not available at the time, but an attendant invented one for us on the spot. He also included a few atypical highlights such as an incredibly realistic ceramic model of a basket of nuts & seeds, and a drawing of a map of the Hundred-Acre Wood for A.A. Milne’s book Winnie-the-Pooh — our youngest son couldn’t get more excited than he was when seeing all the original illustrations featuring his favourite bear. It’s always great to see a museum’s most popular pieces, but I think it’s even more gratifying to discover new personal favourites. This happened to me with Olga & Alexander Florensky’s Flags of Main Enemy Troops in last year’s exhibition about post-Soviet printmaking, and today, whenever I see Alexander’s work, I recognize it instantly. Finally, every decent museum has a decent library, but the National Art Library, with around one million books, is one of the better ones I’ve seen, and its historic reading rooms are definitely worth a visit. Admission to both the museum and the library is free.

Reader comments


One of my favourites at the V&A is the Great Bed of Ware, which has been famous since it was made in the 1590s as a marketing ploy to attract visitors to an inn in Ware (Hertfordshire). In 1601, William Shakespeare mentioned the 3⅜ × 3¼ × 2⅔-m four-poster bed in his play Twelfth Night. In 1736, it’s recorded as having slept ‘twenty-six butchers and their wives’ for a wager, on the night in 1689 before King William III was crowned, which was nearly half a century ago at that time. In 1805, The Traveller’s Guide, or English Itinerary brings the number of butchers down to twelve: ‘At one of the inns here is a bed, proverbially called “The Great Bed of Ware”, which is 12 feet square, and lodged at once 12 butchers and their wives; they lay all round thus: two men, then two women, and so on alternately; by which means each man was near no woman but his wife.’ And around 35 years later, Pigot and Co.’s Pocket Atlas, Topography and Gazetteer of England even contests the diminished figure: ‘The bed might contain twelve persons, but certainly not “twelve butchers and their wives”, as erroneously magnified’.


On its website, the Victoria and Albert Museum claims to house some 2⅓ million objects, and over the last decade the collection’s advertised time span enlarged from 2,000 to 3,000 and then 5,000 years. I believe that an institution as excellent as the V&A has no need to impress by bumping up numbers, that a million National Art Library items do not count as museum objects, and that the most significant part of the museum’s collection dates from the two most recent millennia. I also believe that the 26 butchers & their wives to which the V&A keeps referring is erroneously magnified as well.