Museums Yesterday I visited the Victoria & Albert Museum for the first time in my forty-one years, a day trip from Liverpool. There are plenty of justifications for this, but partly it's because of the reasons outlined by the Cancer Doctor who appeared on the PM programme tonight. He told Eddie Mair that one of the key decisions people make after a diagnosis, especially after a terminal diagnosis, is that they fling themselves headlong into a bucket list and how he wished more people would take that attitude before a diagnosis so that they don't feel like they have any unfinished business should the worst happen. Recently I decided that since I am nearly forty-two, that we only have one life and we don't know what might happen tomorrow, I should do some of the things I've always wanted to do.
Yesterday I visited the Victoria & Albert Museum for the first time in my forty-one years, a day trip from Liverpool. Instead of offering a review, because it's pointless to review a hundred and fifty year old museum of this magnitude, here's a list of things I learned.
(1) Pay attention to the tube map and don't panic on the underground.
After heading down to Euston Square tube station, for some reason although I'd already checked the route beforehand, I managed to confuse the Circle and Piccadilly line in my head and then rushed onto a train which meant I not only managed to get on a train on the wrong line but it was also going in the wrong direction. Fortunately, I was able to calculate that I could alight on Edgeware Road and swap to a Circle line train going in the opposite direction taking me back round to South Kensington station. Londoners can now feel free to call me the "fucking amateur" that I undoubtedly am.
(2) Tyrone Guthrie invented the thrust stage.
The key reason for visiting the V&A other than so that I can actually have the memory of visiting the V&A now whenever anyone refers to it, was to see the theatre and performing arts display. This was somewhat of a return visit having previously seen much of it when originally housed that the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden nearly ten years ago. As expected this is a shadow, a mishmash of the highlights collected around themes which does the collection something of a disservice. It's a continued disgrace that we don't still have a national theatre museum, but I expect one of the reasons the original closed was due to visitor numbers -- it was deserted when I went -- so I'm not sure what the solution is.
For Shakespeare fans there are three key objects. They have a Shakespeare First Folio, which was an unexpected surprise, opened on the first page of The Merry Wives of Windsor rather than Shakespeare's portrait which makes a change. There's also the tunic Henry Irving wore for his Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing at the Lyceum in 1882. Then there's a large diorama which explains the history of thrust stages with miniature recreations of festival theatre in Ontario, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford and the recreation of the Globe which really explains the difference between a genuine thrust, a half thrust and a glorified proscenium arch with Tyrone Guthrie's original designs as the standard.
(3) Wherever you go, there you are.
The V&A has a vast fine art collection, much of which is strewn throughout the chronological and geographic displays more on which later, but two rooms are dedicated the Sheepshank collection, gifted to the museum by a cloth manufacturer from Leeds. Almost as soon as I walked into these rooms, I realised that I'd stumbled into just the sort of display I'd expect to find in a regional art gallery and that for the following half hour I was essentially on some lost version of one of my old Public Art Collection visits, more so considering, as was so often the case then when I'd turn up in a town only to discover the gallery was closed for renovations, that one of the rooms was closed for a rehang, the one which just happened to have my beloved pre-Raphaelites.
Many of the same artists feature, a Landseer, some Ettys. I imagined myself, notebook in hand, giddily jotting observations about their William Blakes or excited about what could the best painting on display, Danby's Disappointed Love. A young woman crouches in woodland next to a lake in total despair, miniature portrait and torn letter signalling something horrific has happened to her heart. The mystical detail of the brushstrokes isn't realistic but still draws you into the image, her white dress popping against the dark green of the trees. If this had been the result of travelling to a Macclesfield or Oldham I would not have been disappointed and here it is hidden away in a corner of the V&A.
(4) Gallery fatigue continues to be a threat.
As you'll have noticed from previous dispatches, if I'm even slightly interested in an exhibition, I like to take to time to see everything which generally means I'm wandering around for quite some time longer that most people. Shakespeare in Ten Acts at the British Library a few months ago took me three hours. The upshot is that gallery fatigue tends to set in after about two to two and a half hours, as the ability to absorb what I'm seeing disappears. After the theatre and painting rooms, which also includes a display of Turner and Constable and despite the intervention of lemon cake from the cafe, gallery fatigue really began to lay it groggy clutches on me by about half two in the afternoon which is a bit of a problem if you're there for a whole day on purpose, especially since ...
(5) The space is big. Really big.
The V&A, like most national galleries, is huge, the equivalent having the whole of National Museums Liverpool in one building five times. With my approach to museums, I'd could spend a day just working my way through a single room or section, so it would take me roughly three months to see the whole thing. With just a few opening hours remaining, I took the unsatisfactory decision to simply walk the place, map in hand, making sure I'd stepped through all the rooms attempting to make the gallery fatigue work for me as I only stopped to see the items which really caught my eye, mainly the paintings mixed with the furniture and decorative arts materials telling the story of a particular period in history.
The experience was a bit like that sequence in George Pal's film adaptation of The Time Machine as Rod Taylor watches history unfold before him, or Lucy in Luc Besson's film of the same name. So much to see, too much to take in. I dawdled most in the rooms which have been scooped up from their original establishments and recreated in the museum, panel by panel, like pocket universes (which also made it also somewhat like seeing a National Trust property or stepping through the mirrors in Doctor Who's The Girl In The Fireplace). But even then, I was conscious of the clock, the deadline of the museum closing time causing a need to push on. Seeing so many beautiful objects in one place is overwhelming especially when there's barely seconds for your mind to gather context, read notes.
(6) You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.
The one room which must be visited is the Raphael chamber. Massive frescoes leant by her Majesty the Queen line the walls of a space which is the size of a church if not a cathedral, which given how much of the rest of the surrounding spaces have low ceilings is truly awe inspiring. The paintings themselves are actually pretty difficult to look at, light shining across their protective glaze, but the equally massive information labels offer a decent synopsis of what we're seeing. Oh to have a day to simply sit in that space and watch people's reactions on entering looking up and around the contours of the ceiling boggle eyed. But the V&A is rather like taking the Grand Tour in one place, probably because much of its collection is from the results of that Grand Tour. The cast galleries feature plaster recreations of some of Europe's great statuary including Michelangelo's David which is much taller than I expected.
(7) There aren't enough toilets.
As we've discussed before, I'm usually happy if there's some decent paintings and adequate toilets at a museum or art venue. The problem at the V&A is that because they gallery is so vast, it takes a good five minutes to walk to the nearest toilet which is a problem if you have the constitution of a child and need to go more than most especially if you're standing up a lot. Eventually I worked out some good routes back to the main toilets but please, the V&A, for the love of Daenerys Targaryen will you please add some more conveniences or failing that better signage in the middle of the exhibition spaces demonstrating their locations.
(8) I ain't nothing like a Dame.
In the performance section, alongside a recreation of Kylie Minogue's tour dressing room (add another day to unpack that visual feast) is a selection of costumes for dress up amongst which is Widow Twankey's dress. Once I'd worked out which way it was supposed to fit, and after another visitor offered to attach the velcro at the back, I took this selfie:
I'm sure having a hat would have made the difference. On the upside, having lost all of this weight over the past few years, most of the costumes were way too big for me. Yes, I tried them all on.
(9) You can't see everything.
Which feels like I'm repeating myself, but it's true. As closing time descended, I was just stepping into a gallery dedicated to the Americas. Having barely glanced at anything, the staff were pulling chords across doorways and closing the rooms down, a massive physical hint that they wanted to go home. Sorry, photography. As I wandered with urgency back to the cloakroom to pick up my backpack, I was impressed with the speed that the staff were able to coax visitors towards the exit. Having worked in similar situations, there are always straddlers and yet here we all were streaming towards the doors before the closing time of a quarter to six.
(10) You can't walk back to Euston from the V&A in three hours.
Or at least not the way I was attempting it. Google Maps indicated it was possible to walk to Euston from the the V&A in just over an hour. Deciding it would be a good way to see new parts of London, or parts of London new to me, and with a three hour gap between closing time at the gallery and my train home, I photographed the route ahead of time. This took me into Knightsbridge which meant I could visit Harrods food hall (to buy a Christmas pudding) and the original Harvey Nicks and wander through Hyde Park at dusk, see the lake and then step under the actual Marble Arch. Which was all fine, except I then misread the map on my tiny iPod screen and walked way too far up Edgeware Road to the point that I was completely lost. After asking a street sweeper for directions, who spent the next three minutes telling me he didn't know, I walked up another wrong street and ended up taking the tube from Paddington station back to Euston following much the same route as before. Fucking amateur.