December 6th, 2010

Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

Month of Museums #9: The OTHER London museum...

If you ever step across the sacred theshold of the British Museum, you kind of feel the urge to give a deep curtsey, to mind your P’s and Q’s. to speak with a plummy British accent if you speak at all; if the place was a person, it would be a crusty English aristocrat with snow-white sideburns and wearing a monocle and a shiny top hat.

The Victoria & Albert Museum – or, as it is far better known, the V&A – is a completely different animal.

Instead of being addressed in stentorian tones and exhorted to pull up your cultural socks, you find the V&A kind of lurking in a corner, hunched over something fascinating or something beautiful, and then turning to catch your eye with a twinkle in its own and a hand beckons and you hear a half-whispered, “You! Over there! Come ‘ere and look at somethin’, it’s plumb MARVELLOUS!”

The V&A doesn’t lecture you. It SHARES. It’s the little big museum – there’s PLENTY here to see and to occupy your time – and although it takes itself seriously enough as a depository of cultural and art treasures, it also addresses its own high aspirations with a little bit of almost Cockney charm (which is awesome, considering that it is named after not one but two royal personages one of whom gave her name to an entire historical era…)

The reason I fell in love with this place – well – there are two reasons, really.

One is that it is the only museum I know to have a GALLERY OF GENUINE FAKES. This is so cool on so many different levels – it’s a diffident statement of “yes, we do know our stuff, else we wouldn’t KNOW these were fakes”; it’s a wink and a nod, inviting you to smile along; it’s a sense of frank awe, sometimes, really, when you gaze on something that’s exibited and carefully analysed and labelled as a fake but to your own eye it looks just as perfect as the original ever did and behind that odd little grin and caper the V&A is actually showing off its very real pedigree. I adore this gallery. I don’t know, it just tickles my sense of the ridiculous to a fabulous degree – a Chinese puzzle – a fake pretending to be real shown as a fake – if you go to the V&A website and type “fakes and forgeries” into the search box on the Exhibitions page it’ll give you an entire list of what’s held here, and even if you never go see it all it makes for a fun read.

The other thing that brought me back to this place on several occasions is the jewellery exhibition.

This is set up chronologically. You start off at the Age of Antiquity, and then move up – through theMiddle Ages, through the Renaissance, through the Belle Epoque, right up to contemporary. You can follow right along - glass case after glass case bearing adornments made to grace a woman’s (and sometimes a man’s) form and figure, jewels worn by aristocrats and Queens and Empresses, and then, as you inch towards our own time, by lesser lights as well as things became cheaper and – yes – tawdrier. There’s a case which has the kind of cheap and nasty modern stuff that makes me cringe in something almost like shame – that I should be standing HERE, gazing at THIS, when moments ago I had been resting my eyes on collars made from beaten gold and pins with sapphires and rubies and a glittering diadem trembling with jewels and pearls. It is another of the subtle V&A statements – it is, almost, an indictment, showing the passing visitor the meaning of grace and beauty and then how far we can stray from it, without even half-trying. If you look at nothing else at all in the Victoria & Albert Museum, go look at this. It puts the ages of man in perspective. It questions your ideas and your values, shakes them up, and puts them down in different places from where they had been before.

Don’t schedule an hour for this place. Schedule an afternoon. Wander in, look around, watch out for that funny little guy beckoning you over – ‘Oy! ‘Ere! Come look at THIS!” – and then follow where he leads. This is a museum that barely needs a catalogue or a curator. It is almost, almost, sentient enough to guide you through its halls by its own whispered voice. Listen. You will hear it sussurating secrets in your ear.