v&a 2Creativecommons.org/Jean-Pierre Dalbera

Prince Albert’s legacy to England, the Victoria and Albert is the largest museum of design and decorative arts in the world. With over 4.5 million pieces, planning a trip there is both a delight and an undertaking. Don’t miss the current exhibits, and check out some of these highlights of the permanent collection.

The Building

v&a 1creativecommons.org/Chris SampsonVictorian period – The Sheepshanks Gallery is one of the oldest parts of the building and echoes the original, utilitarian look of the museum. The Turner and Vernon Galleries were added in 1859 followed by the North and South Courts. The Ceramic Staircase near the café and the north façade are worth taking a look at, as is the café. As you wander through the museum, look for the mosaics and ceramic tile work that were part of this era also.

Edwardian Period - The main façade is a hybrid of Renaissance and medieval design. The main entrance is gothic surrounded by classical Romanesque arches with Prince Albert appearing within the arch. The marble in the entrance hall and staircases is also from this period.

Battle Scars – Shrapnel from bombs that landed nearby gouged the exterior of the building. The damage remains to mark the passage of the building through time. Just as earlier eras created memorable architecture, World War II also contributed to the façade.

The Garden – This sometimes displays statuary, but the rest of the time it’s a peaceful place to take a break from the crowds inside.

Current Exhibits

The Glamour of Italian Fashion – Ending in July, the exhibit follows fashion from the end of World War II up to the present day. The impact of Hollywood on Italian fashion as stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor showcased designs was the start of the international passion for Italian fashion. After the war, with the help of the starlets, designs became glamorous and luxurious once again. Over time the look shifted to tailored styles and “Made in Italy” became a mark of quality. Since the 90s, Italian designers have diversified and Italian fashion is as much an international look as a local one.

Designing Georgian Britain – William Kent was the leading architect of Early Georgian Britain. In conjunction with the accession of the Hanoverian Royal Family, the vision of Kent helped establish a new aesthetic for the new Britain. The interiors of several well-known houses were designed by the artist as well as the London houses of leading political figures of the time. The exhibit runs through July of 2014.

Wedding Dresses – The newly opened exhibition which runs until March, 2015, follows the evolution of white wedding dresses and showcases some intricate designs from Charles Frederick Worth, Norman Hartnell, Vera Wang and others. Some of the most elaborate gowns from the V&A’s collection are also part of the display.

The Collection

The museum is undergoing a major renovation project and periodically galleries are closed. Check the website before making any plans.

Costume Gallery – The creativity and artistry of costume designers is stunningly displayed in the more than 3000 costumes and accessories in this gallery. The display of design and fabric are best to walk through before hitting the stage costumes. This is where you’ll find history represented through costume on stage.

The amount of detail that goes into creating a stage costume includes information down to the exact year the production represents and the social status of the character. Pieces need to allow for singing, dancing and the body shape of a performer. Because of this, many of the costumes on display were created for a single individual performing during a single season. Here you’ll see the silk costume worn by Judi Dench as Cleopatra, the exceptionally ornate costumes designed for the dancers of the 1969 Royal Ballet, the graceful, flounced gown reproducing a style worn by the great French ballerina Francoise Prevost and other truly amazing designs.

Don’t miss the display of costume decorations, either. The embroidery, beading and clever use of fabric enriching the costume is highlighted here with some of the most elaborate designs in the gallery. Look at the detail and materials creating the effect, then step back to see how something as simple as plastic flowers and lace becomes the 18th century fantasy dress in Der Rosenkavalier.

Other displays in the gallery tell the stories of famous costume designers of the last two centuries.

jewellerycreativecommons.org/Veronika Brazdova

Jewellery - From ancient eras to the present day, the story of jewellery is presented in dazzling fashion at the V&A. Start by taking a tour through history and see how designs and techniques have changed. The gold, silver, copper and pewter pieces created during medieval times show the use of color through polished gems and enamels. Magical inscriptions meant to protect the wearer are one of the more fascinating details from the era.

17th and 18th –century designs saw the advent of cut gemstones and elaborate decorations. Diamonds added shine to sword hilts and lacy gold filigree created delicate crowns and broaches.

During the 19th century, jewellers sought to recreate the art of classical Greece, but with increased depth made possible by newer techniques. Bejeweled reproductions of nature such as glittery sprays of flowers were popular during this period and many of the artistic pieces can be found here.

Modern jewellery designs are followed from the art deco styles of the late 1800s to contemporary pieces that incorporate plastics and other non-precious materials.

glass chandeliercreativecommons.org/Heather Cowper

Glass - Pieces in this collection tend to be more modern. Reekie and Bianchin have exhibits here, and an enourmous Chihuly chandelier hangs in the main entrance. Reekie’s piece is a thought-provoking coral of glass men, identical and looking straight ahead….except for the one gentleman at the rear who is looking back.

This is also where you’ll find the Luck of Edenhall, an enameled, gilded drinking glass from the 14th century. It’s a remarkable piece of art that was once believed to be a fairy cup, left behind by the fairies in the Garden of Edenhall. Sadly, modern science has traced its origins to Syria, not the fairies, although the full history of the Luck is still unknown.

British Galleries – Every aspect of British history can be found here – art, tea, war, clothing styles, furniture and influential persons are just a few of the themes covered. The Discovery Areas are a fun way to explore the past. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to wear a corset or a hoop skirt, you can try them here. They also let you construct building models and design your own monogram. If you happen to be travelling with bored children, plan these stops into your tour.

The Djanogly Gallery has a collection of clothing and accessories worn by the nobility during the Civil War years. Furnishings and other pieces from the era are also on display.

With so much to see here, many galleries will only have one or two eye-catching displays. Look for the Great Bed of Ware in room 57, 16th century tapestries in room 58b, Gothic Revival in room 122d and the display of commemorative items in room 123.

great bedcreativecommons.org/Veronika Brazdova

Silver – Containing pieces from 3rd-century Roman to present-day European, the Silver collection is favoured by many visitors. The pre-1800 British collection ranges from a delicate baby’s rattle with attached coral for teething to an enourmous centrepiece made in 1747 for the Earl of Ashburnham.

The European Silver collection has pieces from 1400s to the 1800s and includes items from as far as Russia and Italy. Follow the change in fashion over time by looking at the different styles of tableware and tankards. View ornate Baroque designs that flow into untamed rococo and slowly morph into restrained classic styles.

One of the largest collections is International Silver which has pieces dating from the 1800s through today. Cigarette boxes, candlesticks and three life-size silver-plated lions are among the treasures. Even the most ordinary objects such as a mass-produced electroplated pitcher are included to ensure a complete, fully-representative collection.

Cast Courts – This gallery features tatuary, architecture and decorations cast from plaster. There are some remarkable reproductions of Renaissance sculptures and art in this room. A cast of Michelangelo’s David dates from some time in the mid 1800s and other familiar art will catch your eye as you walk through.

The Ironwork Gallery – Wander through the longest gallery in the museum to see the diversity of iron. From locks and keys to large, architectural pieces, the gallery is somehow soothing after viewing all the glittery jewels and clothes of other rooms.