Behind the Scenes at the Museum

I left the Victoria and Albert Museum as a member of staff for the last time yesterday. No longer will I be able to mysteriously disappear through doors marked ‘Staff Only’, or go behind the scenes and get sneak previews of exhibitions and new galleries. I’m going to miss it, enormously. It was an immense privilege to walk through galleries of sculpture on the way to a meeting; to be taken to attic store rooms lined with treasures; to be able to wander around before and after opening hours, and look and linger as long as I wanted to; to attend glamorous opening parties; and to have the company of colleagues passionate and knowledgable about their work, from whom I learned an awful lot. It was a magical one year and nine months, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone to work in a museum for a while – it’s an unforgettable experience!

I’m going to take you on a little ‘insider’s’ tour of the V&A now…my favourite gallery is the Cast Courts (or gallery 46a, to us!), which is the first picture at the top. These two galleries were purpose built in the 1870s to display the V&A’s now unrivalled collection of Victorian casts of famous world monuments. These casts, made of plaster and painted to resemble stone or iron or whatever the original monument was made from, are colossal in their size and include Michaelangelo’s David and Trajan’s Column (in the top picture – in two halves). The casts are mostly hollow and double up as useful storage receptacles – last time I popped my head into the space underneath the bottom half of Trajan’s Column, which looks like a big brick chimney from the inside, it was storing a massive gold Menorah!

Casts went out of fashion in the 20th century and all museums apart from the V&A and the Ashmolean in Oxford got rid of their collections. The sheer size of them makes them impractical to display, and technically, as they are not original works of art and merely copies, they are considered by many academics to be not worthy of being displayed as objects of architectural and design history in their own right. The V&A took a different attitude, however; the casts are an integral part of the V&A’s history as an art and design school, and as we had the space for them, the casts stayed. Now they are the most comprehensive collection of architectural casts anywhere in the world, and due to pollution and damage inflicted during both world wars, in some cases, the casts have provided vital evidence of original details and carving that has been lost over the past one hundred years from the originals. They are currently having a resurgence in importance in the art and architectural worlds, and there is nothing like them anywhere else. They are not widely known about, but they are so impressive in the flesh, and if you are ever in London, they are well worth a visit. Sadly, you can no longer access the gallery that runs along the top for health and safety reasons; I’ve been up there, and it’s an incredible view, though there are a lot of uncatalogued boxes of small casts up there so it’s probably best the public doesn’t see that bit!

Next up, is my favourite object. The painting above is a typical portrait of the Aesthetic period, and is by Sir William Blake Richmond. The sitter is Mrs Luke Ionides, born Elfrida Bird, wife of a wealthy Greek trading magnate and art patron. I adore everything about the Victorian period; the literature, the art, the design, the tastes, the history; and I especially love the Arts and Crafts movement. This painting is a perfect distillation of everything wonderful about Victorian Britain; sumptuous colours, ridiculous fashion, the interest in exoticism and the natural world, and the innovation and idealism practised by many. In the flesh, it is an absolute feast for the eyes. I used to go and just look at it on my lunch break, in awe of how lovely it is. It’s situated in the paintings galleries, which again, not a lot of people seem to know the V&A has. There is a magnificent collection of paintings on permanent show that are typical of the Victorian era; another favourite of mine is Rosetti’s The Day Dream.¬† The collection is well worth a look, and is a real hidden gem amongst the colossal range of the Museum’s holdings.

Finally, above is my favourite space in the V&A; the Morris room in the Museum cafe. There are three rooms that make up the cafe; the Morris, Gamble and Poynter rooms, all named after the men who designed them. They are beautiful rooms with tiled walls, stained glass and painted murals, all original survivals from the Victorian period when they were designed specifically as the first museum cafeteria in the world. William Morris’ design is stunning; it creates the effect of being in a forest glade, with the rich green walls and dappled light coming through the stained glass. Up close you can see the delicate paintwork on the walls, and the intricate ceiling design; it’s a perfect example of the decadence and earthiness of Morris’ designs. As a lover of everything Victorian, it is heaven in four walls to me. What could be a better place to sit down with a cup of tea and a slice of cake after a few hours wandering through the halls of magnificent objects?

I hope you enjoyed this whistlestop tour, and that it will encourage many of you who have never been before to take a trip to the beautiful Victoria and Albert Museum, otherwise known as the world’s greatest museum of art and design. I will leave you with a haunting poem from the sculpture that topped the grave of Countess Emily Georgiana of Winchelsea and Nottingham, and which I passed every day on my way to and from my office; she wrote it herself before she died to give her husband comfort once she was dead:

I
When the knell rung for the dying
soundeth for me
and my corpse coldly is lying
neath the green tree

II
When the turf strangers are heaping
covers my breast
Come not to gaze on me weeping
I am at rest

III
All my life coldly and sadly
The days have gone by
I who dreamed wildly and madly
am happy to die

IV
Long since my heart has been breaking
Its pain is past
A time has been set to its aching
Peace comes at last.

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36 comments

  1. It is early morning on another gloomy, humid August day. My sleep was fretful and I awoke a tad grumpy, and here you come, finishing one chapter of your life and beginning another, bringing good cheer as you pause to take us on this lovely tour of the Victoria and Albert, brightening the day and filling me with awe. Did you know that this is one of THE spots in England I said I must tour should I finally row my boat across the big pond that separates my land from yours?

    How interesting the Cast Courts are and Mrs. Ionides’ painting is stunning. I can only imagine its splendidness in person. The detail, especially on the belt, which for some reason pulled me eye in immediately. The Morris room and its detail and design, how grand that must be! Think of how many more museum cafes have been built to follow suit. I can just imagine you there, eating lunch with friends and co-workers, or bent over the book and soup du jour, lost in an Austen or Whipple.

    A real treat! We have many fine museums here in Chicagoland, for which I am proud. They grew up out of the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire of the late 1860′s, really starting to grow with the grandeur of the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. Put “The Devil and the White City” by Erik Larson on your TBR list. It is a fabulous history of this period that reads like a novel, filled with the architecture and innovations that made our city famous, and a serial killer that that was so charming and devious it will make your skin crawl.

    Now, I”m going back to your pictures above and will dream a little dream about the V&A. Thank you, Rachel, now off you go to what lies next.

    1. Oh thank you, Penny, I am so glad you enjoyed this! You must come over to London…when I return I would be delighted to give you a grand tour of all my favourite sights, the V&A being one of them!

      The belt Mrs Ionides is wearing is actually in the museum as well..so you could have the joy of seeing the object in the flesh too! It’s a beautiful piece, and yes, the eye is drawn to it irresistibly!

      That book sounds fantastic…consider it added! I hope to be able to visit Chicago while I am in the states so I shall be contacting you for some tips!

      Yes..just two weeks to go!!

  2. I’ve only been to the V&A once (only been to London once, so far) but it’s the kind of place that the minute you walk in, you’re already looking forward to being able to come again. It must be amazing to work in a museum…I hope your New York adventure is as wonderful. Where will you be working?

    1. Isn’t it? There’s so much to see that you know you must keep coming back to explore further. That’s what’s so great about Museums in London – most are free, so you don’t have to worry about the expense, and can just wander in freely whenever you like.

      I was so wonderful, Audrey, but I am ready to move on and New York is one of my dreams come true! I’ll be working at a recruitment company so not quite as glamorous, but it will be a change of scene and a chance for me to learn about a new area of work, so I am looking forward to it!

  3. What an interesting post! (So what’s new! :) ) My son is studying for an M.Sc. in Museum Theory and Practice at the moment, and would love to work in a big museum (but in Scotland!) When my husband and I FINALLY get a trip to London, your museum will be one of our ports of call. What a pity you won’t be there… :(

    An interesting poem, too! I can’t see much comfort for him in knowing that his wife’s heart had been breaking for so long. Unless it was for a reason unconnected with him (e.g. if he hadn’t been unfaithful) and he would be glad that her sorry was at an end. Hmmm… I’d love to know the story behind it…

      1. Hi Penny! Thank you – what a lovely thing to say! How wonderful that your son is doing his MSc in Museum Practice…it’s a fantastic career to get into if you’re really passionate about it. I hope he will go far – maybe to London at some point?! I can heartily recommend the V&A! Yes you MUST come to London and visit…if you wait a year, I’ll be back!

        It’s such a haunting poem and the sculpture of Emily Georgiana that her husband had made for her is so beautiful. She died young – in her thirties – and the story goes that they were very much in love, but she had a long illness and suffered a lot before she died, hence why she says her heart was broken and she was glad to die. SO, sad, but at the same time, quite romantic in that she wanted him to know she was happy to die, though sorry to leave him behind.

  4. Tears in my eyes on a lovely hot sunny afternoon in France!

    The poem touched me and, like Penny, I’d love to know what her words were about. Oh, those Victorians! They had a unique way of approaching the subject of death, presumably because life was so fragile then: lots of children lost in their infancy and life expectancy shorter than today.

    I am also touched by this lovely farewell to the V&A. How you made me long for London! I’m missing out on my usual trip this autumn but next time I’m going there (to the V&A) – and to the London Museum, Carlyle’s house, all those places you’ve reminded me of.

    When exactly are you off to America? I suppose there’ll be a hiatus until you settle in?

    1. Hi Chrissy! I’ve posted the answer about the poem to Penny above – hope that satisfies your curiosity!

      They did..I am actually quite fascinated by the Victorian approach to death. I love nosing around old cemeteries and looking at the elaborate gravestones they put up…I suppose their way of coping with constant death was to ritualise it, and in that way, it became controllable to a certain extent. Interesting, how times have changed.

      That’s sad you won’t be coming this year, but yes, when you do come, all of those places must be visited! Have you ever been to Highgate Cemetery? Because that is amazing and SO worth a trip.

      I’m off in two weeks…I fly on the 5th of September. It’s still not really dawned on me that I’m going, and for so long…but I am refusing to panic! Yes there may well be…I’m in a hotel for a couple of weeks before the apartment I’m moving into will be ready, so I may not have access to the internet for a fair while. But I’ll try not to leave you all hanging for too long!

  5. How we could have missed the V & A Museum on our trip to England two summers ago I just do not know. It is now on my “England next time” list. Thanks for the photos and first hand stories!

    1. Hi Cheryle! Well, there’s always something you end up missing out on when you travel anywhere, isn’t there? I always kick myself when I come back from somewhere and people say ‘well of course, you MUST have been (insert amazing sounding place here)’ and then I think nooo! How could I have missed that? And now I have to wait YEARS to see it! But – it’s ok, because it’s always good to have a reason to go back to a place you loved! You’re welcome, Cheryle, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  6. I’ve only gotten to the V&A once, but the Cast Court was absolutely my favorite part. It was just fantastic to be able to see the actual size of Michaelangelo’s David (which I always assumed was life size for some reason). And the idea of the insides of the casts serving as storage space just cracks me up!

    And you should definitely try to make the trek down to DC when you’re in the US. It’s a cheap bus ride, and we have some amazing (and free!) museums.

    1. I’m glad you’ve been, Teresa! Yes, it is HUGE isn’t it? I was surprised as well. They made a special leaf to cover up his also rather large manhood when Queen Victoria visited!

      I WILL visit DC – I can’t wait to see the White House! I also really want to visit the Smithsonian so I will be there with bells on!

  7. I think the Morris room is one of my favourite places in the V&A. It’s beautiful and works anytime of year any time of day… Last days at work are always strange – I somehow find the giving in of keys/pass the hardest thing. Happy Getting Ready…

    1. It’s such a beautiful room…yes, you’re so right. It can feel lovely and cool and fresh in summer and then wonderfully cocoon-like and cosy in winter. I shall miss it! Yes, I had to hand over my pass and key and felt very sad – no longer do I get to walk around with authority!

      Thank you – it’s all a bit daunting, choosing the few things I can take!

  8. I think you already know how I feel about the cast court. I love it, and the V&A, it really is a magical place. Look forward to hearing reports on New Yorks museums and how they compare.

    Getting very excited for you

    1. Yes I do, Hayley! I know I can’t wait to explore what New York has to offer on that front – you’ll get plenty of details from me,I promise!

      Thank you! I am excited mixed with a lot of nerves at the moment!

  9. What a lovely post. Thank you for the pictures & your memories of working at the V&A. I visited the V&A on my one & only (so far) visit to the UK over 10 years ago but I know I didn’t even scratch the surface. The Victorian period is my favourite too. Good luck with the move.

    1. Thank you Lyn! I’m so pleased you enjoy it. Yes, it’s the sort of Museum that takes plenty of visits to get your head around. I still don’t know where everything is! I hope you get to come back and see it again one day. :)

  10. The V&A is my favourite museum of all so I was thrilled that you chose it to write about! Next time I’m there I will look for that beautiful portrait and smile when I find it and thanks for the tears that started as soon as I began to read that poem!

    Enjoy your time off before starting the next adventure in your life, Rachel. Are your parents flying over with you?

    1. How serendipitious, Darlene! Another point to add to the list of areas where we are kindred spirits! Yes do go and look for the portrait, and sorry the poem made you cry – it is ever so sad, isn’t it? I wonder what made her suffer so.

      Thank you, I will! I’ve already enjoyed a very nice lie in this morning, but now the packing has to start! No – I’m going over alone – a clean break!

  11. The V&A may not be my favorite museum, but it’s special to me as the first London museum I ever visited. And I loved the cast courts. I stumbled on them when I was looking for the Thomas a Becket casket, and I was just blown away by them. No matter how many times I visit the V&A it always has a thousand things I haven’t seen yet! :) It must have been amazing to work there.

    1. Not your favourite?! :O What is your favourite, might I ask? Most people LOVE the British Museum, and I don’t, really – when they got rid of the historic round reading room they lost my custom for life!

      I’m glad you’ve seen the cast courts – they have to be seen in the flesh to be truly appreciated! And yes – there is always a thousand things you could have pored over in the galleries…but it means there’s always a reason to go back! It was amazing…I shall really miss it!

      1. It’s in a very close cluster of the top three, and my “favorite” kinda depends on my mood that day. It’s the V&A, the National Portrait Gallery, or the Tate Modern. I am very, very fond of them all. The British Museum is good too, of course, but nothing like as good as the V&A.

  12. I’ve worked in a few very small museums here in Canada and always quite enjoyed it, so that’s amazing you worked at the V&A! What a dream job. This post was wonderful. I was there once myself (while on a group theatre tour of London), but I didn’t really know where I was going or what I was looking at… probably some beds. I’ll have to go back more systematically!

    1. I know, I feel very lucky – now I’ve left and can look back at only the good things! I’m glad you liked the post, and yes, when you go back, take a free guided tour – they will show you the best bits. There are a lot of galleries, and not all of them are especially interesting (to me, anyway) – so you need someone to help you cherry pick!

  13. Concidence but I was off seeing Rosetti paintings and sketches of Rosetti this weekend (I was still imagining him as the guy from the BBC2 Romantics series, so it was a bit of an adjustment). The birds eye view from behind the casts is a lovely touch. And like lots of other people I had no idea there was a painting gallery in the V&A somewhere. Thanks for letting me know, I’ll seek it out the next time I go.

    The V&A job sounds like it was a very valuable time in your life, surrounded by fantastic colleagues. Hope you find more great people in your new position (and good luck with the trip, you must be going quite soon).

    1. How fun, where was that? I love Rossetti’s paintings! Oh gosh, I hated that series…so awful! Thanks – yes, the paintings galleries are fairly tucked away so I’m not surprised most people don’t find them – walk up the National Art Library stairs and then down the corridor next to the library – it’s full of stained glass – the paintings gallery will be directly opposite you when you get to the end of the stained glass section, by the silver lions.

      Yes it was – I know I didn’t always appreciate it while I was there, but I can look back now and realise how blessed I was. Thank you – I hope I do too! I’m leaving next Sunday so yes, it’s coming up very quickly…trying not to freak out!

  14. It was in Birmingham art gallery (the same place part of the Hoard is being displayed). The had a portrait of Hunt and a picture of Fanny, as well as a couple where Lizzie Sidal had been used as the model. I am all about the trashy tv so I loved that series in a guilty way. Just told myself it was about painters, so it was better than that time I was obsessed with Hollyoaks ;)

    Sunday! I’m so excited for you – you’re going to have a wonderful time.

  15. Beautiful little tour. Why are you leaving the museum? I’ll have to add this to the list of stops for when I finally stop by the motherland!

    1. Thank you Mae! I’m moving to New York, so I’m leaving London behind for a while! Very exciting but still sad to say goodbye to my lovely city and everyone I love within it!

  16. We came to the V & A earlier in the year, mainly to see the quilt exhibition, but had a bit of a wander round & came across the paintings galleries – some fabulous ones there. I had been to the museum once before a long time ago & remembered the beautiful tiled rooms of the cafe. We made our cup of tea & piece of cake last a long time, & went from room to room soaking up the atmosphere. Wonderful.
    I have just read A Mile of River & loved it – many thanks. I shall pass it on to my daughter-in-law.
    Do hope you settle well into your new job & way of life. Try to enjoy every minute of the experience.

    1. Oh I loved that quilt exhibition…I was in there whenever I could squeeze through the crowds! The Museum has changed a lot in the last few years – I’m glad you’ve come up recently as it used to be quite old fashioned and dowdy and now it’s a real jewel in the crown of London, if you ask me!

      So glad you loved A Mile of River – it’s so nice to be able to pass on books to people who appreciate them!

      Thank you so much – I am sure that I will! :)

  17. Hi. I really love your photo of the Morris room (my favourite too) in the V&A and wonder if I could use it on my blog? (I’m writing a piece on favourite museum in London and beyond) I would of course credit you and post a link to your page.
    Hannah

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