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Housing the largest collection of decorative arts in the world, the V&A is home to more than four million objects.
Founded in 1852 with the profits of the Great Exhibition, the V&A museum forms part of 'Albertopolis', Kensington's Victorian cultural quarter that also incorporates the Natural History Museum and the Royal Albert Hall.
Described by original Director Sir Henry Cole as 'a refuge for destitute collections', an institution for which his fondest hope was that it would 'furnish a powerful antidote to the gin palace', the museum has since grown in size and stature to span 5,000 years of art, housing items from Europe, North America, Asia and North Africa.
Collections include more than 10,000 paintings, as well as furniture, textiles, glassware and ironwork, prompting Sir Roy Strong to term the museum 'an extremely capacious handbag'.
With 18 major collections housed within its 154 galleries, the V&A defies any internal hierarchies. Grouped into four departments, Asia; Furniture, Textiles and Fashion; Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics and Glass; and Word and Image, instruments jostle with outfits, portraits with papyri, with each collection offering a comprehensive overview of its materials. An ongoing programme of refurbishment and display has resulted in several new galleries, all created by leading designers. The most recent of these is the new Furniture Gallery, and the Europe 1600–1800 Galleries will open in spring 2015. In the meantime, work continues on a spectacular new ceramic tiled courtyard, which will provide a new entrance to the museum on Exhibition Road.
Art Funded works
With more than 100 Art Funded works among its collections, the V&A is one of our larger beneficiaries. Objects range from ceramics and furniture to sculpture and paintings by Constable, Turner and Cotman.
Immediately recognisable in image and reproduction, Antonio Canova's neoclassical marble sculpture of Zeus's daughters, The Three Graces, was nearly lost from the UK when it was acquired by the Getty Museum in 1994. The Art Fund was able to help secure it, and it is now shared between the V&A and the National Galleries of Scotland.
As befits the first museum in the world to provide a public restaurant, the V&A's main café still offers an appropriately august dining experience, although perhaps not quite at the level that Saatchi & Saatchi's notorious 1988 ad implied when it described it as an 'an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached'. Look out for the Victorian maxims celebrating the pleasures of eating and drinking above the windows in the Gamble Room.
Opened in 2005, the John Madejski Garden occupies the museum's central courtyard. As well as an informal café and sunken water-feature, the garden plays host to temporary sculpture exhibitions, as well as the museum's annual contemporary design showcase.