How to Navigate London’s Wondrous (and Very Big) V&A Museum

Even for someone who loves getting lost in museums — especially “everything museums” like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York — London’s Victoria and Albert Museum might have been my Waterloo. The statistics are daunting: 5,000 years of artistic production with more than 60,000 works on view (from a collection of some 2.8 million) in about 150 galleries beneath 21 acres of roof.

The V&A typically draws around 3 million annual visitors, but even on the busiest days, the museum has the space and setup to largely avoid the sense of competing with the crowds. Since visiting the permanent collection is free (some exhibitions cost up to 20 pounds, or about $25), once you’re in the door you can just start wandering. Step right for medieval mosaics and Renaissance tapestries or go deep for 1940s Paris fashion, Baroque sculpture and, beyond that, Buddhist art.

It’s easy to spend an entire day in the V&A. Here’s a plan for making the most of your visit. But first a bit of background.

Visitors in one of the medieval and Renaissance galleries of the V&A.Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

An eclectic treasure trove

If the British Museum is known as Britain’s attic — an abundance of artistic and cultural relics from the realm and around the globe — then the V&A is the country’s classroom. It, too, is a trove of exemplary works, from exquisite Raphael drawings to groovy 1970s plastic radios; Coptic tunics to Alexander McQueen couture gowns; vividly hued Islamic tiles to a bunch of grand English beds. These objects were displayed not just to delight connoisseurs, but to provide great art and ideas to educate British designers, manufacturers and workers in good taste and technical prowess.

The museum was the pet project of Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, who had seen firsthand that British manufactured goods were not always top of the class. By displaying applied arts (textiles, ceramics, glass and other manufactured objects) alongside fine arts (architecture, painting and sculpture), the new museum would democratize aesthetic appreciation and inspire better designs for better products.

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