The Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum is one of the most well-known and exciting museums in the city, because of the huge variety of fascinating historical objects it holds in its many galleries. So it was one of the places I was really looking forward to visiting when I moved to London.
So I’ve now been there twice this year. I first visited back in April, but never got around to blogging about it at the time. And then I went back again last weekend. The most recent trip is the most significant that I want to talk about, but I’ll briefly fill you in on my first visit too, as it’s a good opportunity to do so.
Saints & Sinners Tour
Back in April I made my first ever visit to the V&A for a Saints & Sinners tour, organised by the social group Thinking Bob. This wasn’t organised my the museum – it was simply hosted by a fellow Bobber who enjoys history and sharing their knowledge with others. So he had picked a few objects from different exhibitions in the museum, and took us round them.
We were looking at Christian iconography relating to various saints e.g. statues, stained glass windows and carvings. We focused on about 6 objects in particular, which enabled our host to tell us the stories behind them in detail. It was great because it allowed you to observe and appreciate the objects much more thoroughly while you took in the information, instead of just walking past them and having a quick glance.
The most well-known of the saints we saw was Saint George of course, but there were others too like Saint Sebastian and Saint Roch. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate these things either – either myself, the host nor various other members of the group are religious. At the end of the day, the artworks are still lovely to look at, and the stories behind the saints are interesting and important to hear. And our host was really good at delivering the tour, so at some point I do want to go on another one that he organises.
Europe 1600-1815 Exhibition
Last Sunday I finally got around to looking at one of the V&A’s exhibitions in detail, or one room of it anyway. I had chosen to explore the Europe 1600-1815 exhibition, partly because it’s easy to find next to the main entrance, and also because it had some accessibility features I wanted to try out.
And this was a particularly good opportunity to visit, because I had agreed to be monitored for a research project. A wonderful lady called Rafie Cecilia is conducting a very interesting PhD study into accessibility at museums for blind and partially sighted people, and I was only too happy to help out, as visiting museums is one of the things I really enjoy doing. So I met her at the V&A and, after an initial chat to confirm my consent for the study, she attached some non-intrusive and comfortable equipment to me, before sending me off to explore while she watched discreetly nearby.
So I spent an hour looking around room 7, which is the first room you enter for the Europe exhibition (the whole exhibition goes from room 7 to room 1). It’s really interesting too, with lots of beautiful pieces on display, including statues, furniture, religious items, etc.
A lot of the household items were designed to show prosperity and wealth to impress visitors, for instance, and they are very impressive. You can imagine how nice it could be having things like those in your own house if you could afford them. One thing that particularly caught my eye was a table that could be extended by pulling out panels (called leaves) at each end, because we have a table like that at home which does the same thing.
Other things that I liked included a flower tree sculpture, a large gold dome-like structure called a curfew that’s placed over a fire to keep the embers smouldering for easy relighting the next morning, a mirror with a very ornate frame, a large writing cabinet, and the big statue of Triton that you see as you enter the room to begin with.
The religious items, on the subject of Catholicism, were also very interesting to look at as well. As I said earlier, I’m not a religious person, so they probably didn’t resonate with me as much as they might for people who are. Nevertheless, it’s still fascinating to look at these kind of items regardless of your beliefs. The amount of work and time spent by the artists, sculptors, furniture maskers, etc is obvious, as everything is very impressive.
Most of the objects are in glass cases or behind railings, so I often used my monocular to look closely at them to see the detail. The labels telling you about each object are at about waist height or lower, depending on how the object is positioned. Where objects are in glass cases, the labels are usually just inside the case, at the very front. They have numbers referring to the objects in the cases, but I couldn’t see the numbers next to the objects themselves. I eventually spotted a number by chance with my monocular at one point, but generally speaking they’re small and impossible to locate.
There is lighting above the objects, so I was able to see things without trouble in most cases. But there were a couple of instances where you had a dark coloured object against a dark coloured background in relatively dim light, if the spotlight wasn’t directly on it, which meant I couldn’t see the detail of it. The lighting in the room as a whole was ok though – it’s not bright, so there may be some people who struggle with it, but it was good enough for me to navigate without bumping into anything. So in general I could see things well, and I enjoyed looking at everything I could, often with my monocular as I mentioned.
I also tried out a couple of accessibility features to help me, as they had an audio guide and a large print guide. Regular readers of this blog will know that I like using audio description for things like this, even though I can see objects to a fair degree, because it points out details and information that I would have missed or misunderstood otherwise, and it enhances the experience as a result. I can manage if it’s not available, but it’s much easier and more interesting when it is available. This can be in the form of tours led by someone from the museum or VocalEyes, or an electronic audio guide that you carry around yourself.
I’m happy doing either. Guided in-person tours are great because you get to chat to the person delivering it and ask questions, you often get to touch things, and if you get both an audio describer and a curator, the combination of description and the context behind the objects makes it very immersive and interesting. But I also really like being able to go around on my own too, because you can take as much time as you need and examine as many objects as you like, whereas there are limits on how much an in-person tour can cover. So the best scenario is to have both options available – where you can have an in-person tour to hear about key exhibits in-depth, then you can go back to the exhibition on your own, in your own time, and explore the rest yourself.
In the V&A, the Europe exhibition audio guide is accessed through their website. You have to stream it directly from there, as it’s not designed for you to download the audio in advance. But there is free Wi-Fi in the museum, which doesn’t ask for details like your email address, so it’s free and easy to access, and you can access the website at home too if you want to look at it there. It’s very simply designed and easy to navigate, both on a desktop computer and a smartphone.
And the audio itself is very good too, telling you about a selection of key objects in each room of the exhibition, which you can listen to as a tour of each room, or as themed sets. It’s not delivered in an audio descriptive way, because it’s a general guide aimed at all visitors. So it tells you about the history of each object, who created it, how and why it was made, etc. Sometimes you even get to listen to a piece of music, which is very nice and gives a bit of atmosphere.
That said, some description of each object inevitably forms part of the narrative, so you do still get to hear about key aspects of it. It just isn’t as detailed as a full audio description track might be. Which would have been nice to have, but I thought it worked nicely as it was and served its intended purpose well. So I enjoyed listening to it, it definitely enhanced the experience and brought it to life a bit more.
The large print guide, meanwhile, is available from a stand next to the entrance, on the wall to your left as you reach the bottom of the steps (which would be much safer to walk down if the edges were marked). So it’s easy enough to find. It reproduces the text from all of the labels in the exhibition, so it’s a handy book to carry around, as the information is all very interesting.
The text doesn’t seem quite as large or as bold as I’ve seen in other museums though, so it’s not quite as clear to read, though I still managed. And the text size varies, in that it’s large for the description, then smaller for supplemental information (audio guide indicators, artist credits, etc). The pictures of each object are small as well, and often taken against dark backgrounds, so not always clear to see. But the general shape of the object was often distinctive enough to pick it out, so it generally wasn’t too much of a problem in terms of matching the object to the guide.
But the main issue I found with both guides was finding the objects they refer to in the first place. Because if you try and follow either guide in order as a tour, it’s easy to get a bit lost. The room tour for the audio guide starts at the entrance and progresses well to begin with, so it’s easy to find the first few objects. The website shows you a picture of the object – not just by itself, but in its position in the room, so you can see other objects around it as well – so that helps you pick it out. But I got stuck trying to find a chalice at one point, and it was only later I noticed that the photo had been taken from the opposite direction than the one I was walking in, as if I’d turned around at the end of the room and come back the other way. So when moving forwards through the room, I walked straight past it without realising it.
The large print guide, meanwhile, also lists the objects in order. But it seems to go from the back of the room to the front, which I didn’t realise at first. It seemed a natural assumption that, like the audio guide, it would start with the labels nearest the entrance, so I was a bit confused when I couldn’t find any matches (I was using my monocular to look at the label headings so I could flick through and find the matches in the guide).
I eventually noticed a map in the front of the guide later on, which sort of indicates the order. But as it doesn’t make clear which end of the room is which, it’s easy to misinterpret. It did mark the lift I think, but as I didn’t use that, I didn’t know where it was. I figured it out later – I think it’s in a dark corner to the right of the stairs you enter by, but I’d just dismissed that bit of the room as a dark, blank wall to begin with. If the entrance stairs had been clearly marked as well, it might have been more obvious. But generally I assume that the guide will start from you where you pick it up, so looking for a map doesn’t occur to me.
I eventually discovered where the large print guide started when I got to the other end of the room and spotted the flower tree, which was the first photo in the guide, as it’s very distinctive. Once I’d found that, I was then able to look at the objects in order, and got into a pattern of looking at each object in sequence. There are still points where the guide ‘jumps’ slightly, as the room isn’t a linear layout, but as I was now familiar with the structure of the guide, I knew roughly which part to flick through to find what I wanted. Although there was one instance where the same heading is repeated on two different sides of a glass case, and I happened to pick the wrong set of labels initially. So it wasn’t perfect, but I got around quite a few objects that way.
Once I’d got into that sequence, going to each item in turn and using the large print guide, I was able to bring the audio guide back into play as well. Some of the labels have a headphone symbol and a reference to the audio guide – and this text is replicated in the large print guide, albeit in smaller text than the main description. To hear the audio for the object, all you have to do is type a short word into the search field on the website, and it will take you straight to it. In fact, you only have to type the first few characters, as it automatically narrows down the list of results as you search. So you’re able to click on the correct object before you’ve typed the whole word. So that worked a lot better than doing it as a tour format really, it was very effective. I didn’t get to listen to every single audio object in the room, but I think I did about half of them in the end.
So the accessibility in the exhibition does need some work. Once I’d figured out the best way to explore the space, I was ok. It just took a little while to get into that consistent pattern, to settle on the best route through the space.
But in any case, it’s great that they’re working on making things accessible, I’m very grateful to them for that, and I know it’s a learning curve when developing these things. There are benefits to what’s there already, and I’m sure it will continue to improve as they continue to get feedback.
So the exhibition is really interesting, and I highly recommend checking it out, with a companion if necessary, if you can’t see well. It’s well worth it if you’re into things like history. I loved looking at all the objects, and I definitely plan to go back and explore the other rooms, as well as other exhibitions as they have there. I know the Furniture has actual audio description tracks that you can download to your phone, so I want to try that out. And their new exhibition about Winnie The Pooh sounds really cute too, I remember loving that as a kid.
Once I had finished in the exhibition, Rafie recorded an interview with me about my experience there and at other museums, and my thoughts on accessibility in such places. So I hope my answers were useful, as I really enjoyed chatting to her and finding out about her work. Her aims and ideas are very exciting and interesting, and I’ll be visiting a couple of other museums in the new year to further help with the research. It’s a great privilege to be involved with something like that. The more accessible museums can become, the better, as they’re relevant and interesting to all of us, and everybody deserves to enjoy them and learn from them. Things will continue to improve over the coming years I’m sure, and this project has a lot of great potential to help with that.
After Rafie and I had parted company, I realised I had quite a bit of time to spare, so I went back into Room 7 to look at some of the other objects I hadn’t got around to the first time. And I also took some photos of the objects I liked most, a few of which I’ve been showing here.
Then, on my way out, I had a look at the impressive Christmas tree display they have in the main entrance of the museum. It’s called The Singing Tree by an artist called Es Devlin, and is made up of hundreds of small white panels showing words submitted by the public, placed into a Christmas tree shape. The words keep changing, and there are lighting effects in time with the music playing, so it’s really nice.
I then went outside and had a look at the ice rink at the Natural History Museum, which looks beautiful in the evening light with their impressive Christmas tree in the centre, along with the lighting that decorates the other trees nearby.
And then finally I hopped on to the Piccadilly Line at South Kensington station and went to Covent Garden, to have a look at their Christmas lights. I even decided to be brave and walk up the 193 steps to exit the station (the equivalent of a 15-storey building!). It has to be done at least once when you’re a Londoner I think – though whether you’d want to do it more than once is questionable! I managed it fine though, as did all the other people who were also doing it. My legs were tired at the top, sure, but I quickly recovered. And it was well worth the effort, as the lights in Covent Garden look stunning, especially the lit-up reindeer and their massive Christmas tree!
So I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my visit to the V&A. I’ll certainly post more about the museum when I visit again in the future. But for now, I’ll leave you with a video of highlights from my evening walk, so you can see some more of the Christmas lights. Not long to go until the big day now – and in one of my next posts, I’ll be telling you about a very enjoyable event that I went to during the week, which got me and everyone else firmly in the festive spirit!