Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

V&A and the British Museum

September 13, 2009 · 1 Comment

I had hoped that the Victoria and Albert would be something like the British Museum: large, but manageable.  I was wrong.  Entering the museum via underground tunnel, I was immediately confused as to where in the museum I was.  Rather than the simplicity of rooms surrounding a central courtyard that all connected to each other, I was thrown into a maze of staircases, staff rooms, and an entire wing devoted to a cafe which took me several attempts to navigate around.  By the end of my visit I was nearly too exhausted to make it back down the tunnel to the tube.

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the museum.  The fashion exhibit was, on entering, immediately next to me and it served as a good jumping off point, if not as amazing as I had been led to believe.  However, a jaunt around the medieval section soon cheered me up quite a bit.  The three story high room filled with plaster casts of ancient and gothic architecture made me particularly happy, especially the cast of Trajan’s column.  I’ve studied this column, and I’ve seen pictures, but nothing is as amazing as standing next to it (despite the fact that it wasn’t the original).  The sheer size and attention to detail made me dizzy.  I had to consciously restrain myself from touching it.  After drooling over it for a few minutes, I attempted to enter the other room of casts (in which was housed what looked like a cast of the Colossus of Rhodes), but was thwarted by scaffolding and a sign saying “observe from third floor balcony”.  In my search for this mythical balcony I ascended some stairs and turned some corners and got lost.  Very lost.  So lost that I rounded a corner thinking “how will I ever get out of here and where the hell am I supposed to go next”.  Luckily the gods seemed to hear me and deposited me in a safe haven for people like me: the Theater exhibit. 

I loved the theatre exhibit, especially the dress-up box of costumes to try on (yes, I’m a geek, but what can I say, it was COOL!).  The miniature set models were so well done, and the model of the Theatre Royale at Drury Lane almost sent me into convulsions.  Its attention to detail was fabulous, from safety posters to the raked stage, to little men being raised through little trap doors.  It gave a wonderful history of theater in London from about 1900 onward, and the exhibit was so interactive that I spent a good 45 minutes in it, and it’s really not that big.  However, I eventually found my way out.

It then, however, took me another half an hour to find my way back to the subway.  As much as I did enjoy the experience, the museum is trying to do too much at once.  Instead of focusing on one type of exhibit or one time period or one country, it has crammed them all into a maze of rooms, leaving the visitor with the feeling of being beaten over the head with a textbook (albeit an interesting one) upon leaving.  I think it would be a much more effective museum if it divided its exhibits up into different buildings.  It has already separated the Childhood museum from the main one, so why not do it with more?  They have enough exhibits in there to house hundreds of museums.  Why cram it all into one? 

Interestingly, I didn’t find the British Museum exhausting (or at least not as exhausting).  Perhaps I find the way the rooms are organized more understandable, or the fact that most of it is linked to archaeology (or in the case of the Parthenon Marbles, stealing in the name of archaeology).  The British Museum is not as large an amalgam of ideas as the V&A.  The exhibits on ancient Rome and Greece, Assyria and Egypt, and even North America, they are all connected under the tent of archaeology and anthropology.  The only problem I have with the museum is its questionable acquisition techniques (most of which have been pointed out to me by Professor Maggidis, so perhaps I am a little biased in favor of the Greeks). 

However, I think the hodgepodge of artifacts in both these museums parallels the mishmash of cultures living in London brilliantly.  The names “British Museum” and “Victoria and Albert” evoke very nationalistic images, but house such a variety of things, much like modern London.  While neither museum specializes in Bangladeshi artifacts or Jewish culture, the fact that they do house so much of non-traditional English stuff shows just how diverse England would like to be.  Its next step is to realize the abundance of cultures it already has, and perhaps show those off a bit too.

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