Sunday, 17 May 2009

Accidental Visits: An evening at the Victoria & Albert Museum

If pushed to pick my top 10 attractions in London the task would require a great deal of deliberation, short-list production and agonising. So many things to love, so many things to hate. One feature of this city which would fly into my top three unquestioned however is the magnificent Victoria and Albert Museum. Last Friday, in honour of International Museums Day, the V&A kept its vast wooden doors open until midnight. In the high entry hall, Dale Chihuly's blue and green glass sculpture bounced Friday-night light around the pale stone walls far more subtly than any nightclub disco-ball. Beneath it a bar served wine (albeit in plastic picnic glasses) and jazz music played through a sound system, nestled between huge pillars. Visitors chatted on benches, sipping drinks, catching up with friends after work. Individuals wandered through the peaceful Asian art rooms examining antique kimonos, while much of London drunk post-work pints in overcrowded pubs. The fabulous gift-shop positively buzzed with late night commerce.

I was there with friends to finally visit "Hats: An Anthology" produced by milliner Stephen Jones, which alas closes at the end of this month. The exhibition sits within a dark purple topiary garden, entering which makes one feel a little like Alice after she's gone through the looking glass. Extraordinary, unwearable, futuristic and ridiculous headgear of all shapes and sizes was arranged in cases around the dark walls. A policeman's helmet sat next to a bejewelled trucker cap. Pink plastic bike helmets shared a case with a carved wooden creation which would make the wearer look like a walking acorn.
In the centre was reproduced a milliner's atelier, to allow the visitor a peek into the hand-maker's domain; seemingly torturous devices full of pins for measuring head shapes, satin ribbons and feather trimmings, wooden head moulds, chic Schiaparelli hat boxes. Despite the late hour the exhibition was full and visitors craned their heads over each others shoulders to examine Sarah Jessica Parker's butterfly-topped Philip Treacy creation, worn to the premiere of Sex and the City: The Movie. Carla Bruni's tiny grey air-hostess hat was easily overshadowed by a vast purple veiled number owned by the late Queen Mother.
People had time to sit and watch videos of hand-stitching linen roses to wide brims, and to compare their favourite fedoras to another's preferred pill-box. No one was rushing back to work or dashing to collect children/dry-cleaning/the shopping. It was a perfect way to spend a Friday night. A little culture, a lot of fashion and the bliss of being in one of the most wonderous buildings in the city late at night.

After leaving the hall of hats I wandered to the Cast Courts. For some reason I am unable to visit the V&A without paying my respects to this most individual of collections. Two rooms (one currently closed for restoration) full of full-size cast models of church altars, statues of fallen knights templar and, in two pieces due to its staggering height, Trajan's Column. I cannot say what it is within this place which pulls me in every time, yet I can say that at nighttime it is all the more magical. "Night at the Museum" (or its recent filmic sequel) it is not. No stuffed animals or dummies coming to life, roaming the halls. Just busy Londoners getting the chance to enjoy time in a place they may pass daily but rarely are able to visit. I hope that more museums and galleries follow the V&A's example. They would certainly spare me the odd hung-over Saturday morning!


  1. I saw the "Hats: An Anthology" exhibition a couple a weeks ago and I must say it was just amazing. Even if I wasn't there a Friday night like you, I must agree, it's a perfect way to spend any time of the day really. Too bad the exhibition is now finished...

  2. Too bad indeed, but we'll just have to wait for the next fabulous exhibition...the upcoming Baroque one promises to be rather wonderful, although rather different from the hats!


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