If it was pretty, well-made, or valuable, the British Empire wanted to possess it. As a decorative arts repository, the Victoria & Albert, occupying a haughty High Victorian edifice (it was endowed by the proceeds from the first world’s fair, the Great Exhibition of 1851), is about the eye candy of objects—not so much for paintings, but some—and if you’re paying attention, it tells the story of mankind through the development of style and technique.
As for how to tour it, the ground floor, a jumbled grid of rooms, has lots of good stuff, but lots more bric-a-brac (Korean pots, 1,000-year-old rock crystal jugs from Egypt) that you’ll probably walk past with polite but hasty appreciation. Rooms are arranged by country of origin or by medium (ironwork, tapestries, and the like) but you’ll want to see the 20th Century (rooms 74, 76; level 3), which surprises by including objects you may have once kept in your home (a Dyson vacuum cleaner, mobile phones); the U.K.’s only permanent architecture gallery (rooms 127–128a; level 4); the ever-popular fashion gallery (room 40) for looks both historic and haute; and endless slices of medieval stained glass (rooms 83–84; level 3). Wherever you go, if you see a drawer beneath a display case, open it, because many treasures are stored out of the light.
* The Europe 1600–1815 galleries, to the left as you enter, were recently renovated to be bright, rich, and instructive. They’re crammed with 1,100 precious objects including 300-year-old furniture, 18th-century court clothing that looks like it was made yesterday, and even an entire bedchamber from the 1600s. Stream the audio guide from www.vam.ac.uk/europeaudio (there’s free Wi-Fi).
* The seven Raphael Cartoons (room 48a), 500 years old in 2015, are probably the most priceless items. These giant paper paintings—yes, paper—were created by the hand of Raphael as templates for the weavers of his 10 tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. Before Queen Victoria moved them here, they hung for around 175 years in the purpose-built Cartoon Gallery at Hampton Court Palace. The colors are fugitive, meaning they’re fading: Christ’s red robe, painted with plant-based madder lake, has turned white—his reflection in the water, painted with a different pigment, is still red. Yet the queen recently decided people could take flash photos of it.
* None of the sculptures in the sky-lit Cast Court (rooms 46 and 46a) are original. They’re casts of the greatest hits in Renaissance art, and they crowd the room like a yard sale. They were put here in 1873 for the poor, who could never hope to see the real articles for themselves. Find Ghiberti’s doors to the baptistery at Florence’s San Giovanni, whose design kicked off the artistic frenzy of the Renaissance, and Michelangelo’s David, floppy puppy feet and all; he was fitted with a fig leaf for royal visits. Depressingly, many of these replicas are now in better shape than the originals.
* Tipu Sultan of India hated imperialists. So, in the 1790s he commissioned an automaton of a tiger sinking its fangs into one. A crank on Tippoo’s Tiger (room 41) activates a clockwork that makes an Englishman’s hand flail while a hidden keyboard plays a death knell. To no avail; in the end, Tipu was killed by Europeans and the English brought this home. It has been a favorite since 1808, when it was part of the East India Company’s trophy museum.
* The Great Bed of Ware (room 57), a 10-by-11-foot four-poster of carved oak that dates to about 1590, was once a tourist attraction at a country inn, renowned enough for Shakespeare to mention it in Twelfth Night: “big enough for the bed of Ware.” As you admire it, consider that in those days, bed canopies were installed to protect sleepers from insects that might tumble out of their thatched roofs and into their mouths. Canopied beds, a mark of luxury today, were a sign of a humbler home. Nearby is James II’s silver-embroidered wedding suit (1673, room 56).
* The Ardabil carpet (room 42), the world’s oldest dated carpet (copies lay on the floors of 10 Downing St. and Hitler’s Berlin office alike), is from 1539. To preserve its dyes, it’s lit 10 minutes at a time on every half-hour.
* The Hereford Screen (1862, Ironworks balcony) is a liturgical riot by Gilbert Scott, the architect of the “Eros” and the St Pancras Renaissance. It took 38 conservators 13 months to restore the 8-ton choir screen to its full golden, brassy, painted Gothic Revival glory.
* The Gilbert Collection (rooms 70–73) of impossibly fine jewel boxes, cameos, silver, and mosaics was amassed by a rich enthusiast who originally gave them to LACMA in California, where he made his fortune. But in a museum-world scandal, he stripped them from it for not showing the whole collection at once. Despite that slap in the face, the V&A still displays only highlights, which must chafe LACMA.
* One volume of Da Vinci’s legendary notebooks is on display in room 64 (Medieval and Renaissance).
* It’s hard to forget the riotous figures and tilework of the Ceramic Staircase (1860s); originally, every staircase here was to look like this, but when the cost became apparent, even those excessive Victorians satisfied themselves with just one. To find it, turn left after coming through the Exhibition Road entrance.
* The second, third, and fourth levels have less space and therefore are more intuitive. Look for the Theatre & Performance collection (103–106b), which lends the spark of modern familiarity to the proceedings; you can see, for example, Vivien Leigh’s Oscar, Fred Astaire’s tux, Kylie Minogue’s dressing room, and costumes from The Lion King and Wicked.
Questions about what you’re seeing will be referred to the Info Desk, which in turn may be referred to a search on the public website. Such is the sad reality of today’s heavily touristed museum. That’s why planning pays off: Download a map and you’ll save £2, and download its free app to see what hot-ticket exhibitions are coming, many of them on topics that pander to a wide paying audience (David Bowie, Pink Floyd) or are blatantly influenced by sponsors (historic underwear). £20 is a typical upcharge for an exhibition here. Free 1-hr. introductory tours are given at 10:30am, and 12:30, 1:30, and 3:30pm, with one for the Medieval and Renaissance galleries at 11:30am and another for the British galleries at 2:30pm. Kids can borrow delightful “Back-Packs” at the Sackler Centre Reception, which contain activity sets that engage them in some of the museum’s most eye-catching holdings. More goodies for kids are listed at www.vam.ac.uk/families and exhibited at the Museum of Childhood. Even the cafe (the world’s first museum restaurant) is gorgeous; have a coffee in the extraordinary Gamble Room (1865–1878), a visual feast in ceramic tile and enameled iron. Also visit the V&A’s western exterior; scarred during the Blitz, the stonework was left unrepaired as a memorial.