Behind the Scenes at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London

Posted on January 25th, 2010 by

The Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, London is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design.  The Museum is located in what is termed London’s “Albertopolis”, an area of great cultural, scientific, and educational importance.  Some of the neighboring institutions are the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum.  The official opening of the Museum by Queen Victoria was in 1857 and was initially known as the Museum of Manufactures.  At the beginning stages of the Museum’s existence, it covered mostly applied art and science.  The Victoria and Albert Museum states on their website that “The purpose of the institution is to enable everyone to enjoy its collections and explore the cultures that created them, and to inspire those who shape contemporary design.”  The directors of the Museum are focused on increasing the use of their displays and collections more and more in the future.

I went on a tour that strictly covered the British Galleries of the Victoria and Albert.  Very early on, I realized that this museum was different from the other ones that we have seen and I had a different experience with the tour guide than I have in others.  At the first piece that we looked at, a painting of King Henry VIII, she made a point to verbally tell the group that everything in the British galleries were made for British people, but that it didn’t necessarily mean the items were designed by British artists.  I thought that it was interesting that she acknowledged this fact directly right away, unlike many other guides that we have had, such as in the National Portrait Gallery.  Another difference that I noticed was that people are able to take pictures, with flash, of anything in the entire Museum.  Our guide at the Victoria and Albert really focused on the changes in design and fashion in the British Galleries.  We looked at various design examples such as door locks, a famous bed that was mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, tapestries, elegant dresses and even old parlor rooms that were removed from old houses and installed in the Museum, which we were able to walk through.  For me, seeing these types of household items really gave me insight into what kind of lives people lived in the British past.

The most interesting and productive learning experience for me occurred when Christian DeMarais and I explored the Theater and Performance galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum.  The class was divided into pairs in which we could choose a specific gallery or piece to analyze and, in turn, present a briefing of the experience to Professor MacCarthy.  Near the entrance of the galleries, there was a poster that mentioned that there has always been a desire of humans to create things.  Inspiration can come from anywhere and the process of creation and inspiration is cyclical.  The galleries put every aspect of “the performance” in front of the viewer, the things that some may have not completely thought about before, including myself, such as the design and creation of the costumes.  The gallery dedicated a lot of space to the people who are behind the scenes of a performance.  It glorified the producers, the make-up artists, the artistic directors, costume designers and promoters, something that many museums would not mention.  The promotion before a performance is just as important as the performance itself and it is something that brings together all forms of art.  It was interesting to see posters that were created for various shows in the past and how important the design of the poster really is.  Sometimes promoting a show is even a performance; in medieval times some would parade through the streets to gain people’s attention.  Even after a performance is done, the creativity does not stop.  People can wander through the shops and buy souvenirs related to the performance that are design objects.

The importance of the audience was also something that was stressed.  The performance relies on the reaction of the audience to a great extent.  Singers encourage people to sing along with their songs at a concert, comedians rely on laughter from the audience, and magicians ask for audience volunteers and props for some of their tricks.  Overall, all sorts of performances rely on audience reaction to complete the work.

For me, the majority of the learning at the Victoria and Albert Museum was done without the tour guide.  The Theater and Performance Galleries were set up in a way that made the audience appreciate every aspect of the production of a performance.  Not having an extensive background in theater, I was able to really appreciate the seemingly small things that go into a performance, and I think that the Victoria and Albert Museum set it up in a very nice way.  They paid respect to the artists who design promotional posters and graphics, which was very important to me because it is the type of occupational field that I would like to pursue.  Looking at the costumes was interesting because I don’t think that I ever fully realized how extravagant and important the design of the costume is to the overall production.

In conclusion, the day at the Victoria and Albert Museum was a different experience than some of the other museums that we have visited, such as the British Museum or the National Gallery.  They paid tribute to the importance of design in some of the things that we may not take the time to think about otherwise.  I appreciated the Theater and Performance Galleries because they gave credit to those who may not usually receive it.


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