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The Museum of Manufactures, as the V&A was known when it opened in 1852, was part of Prince Albert’s legacy to the nation in the aftermath of the successful Great Exhibition of 1851. It houses the world's largest collection of decorative arts, from Asian ceramics to Middle Eastern rugs, Chinese paintings, Western furniture, fashion from all ages and modern-day domestic appliances. The (ticketed) temporary exhibitions are another highlight, covering anything from David Bowie retrospectives to designer Alexander McQueen, special materials and trends.
There are more than 100 galleries in the museum, so pick carefully or join a free one-hour guided tour (they meet close to the information desk in the main hall); there are several a day on a variety of themes, including introductory tours, medieval and Renaissance tours, and theatre and performance tours.
Must-sees for first-timers include the British Galleries (with the biggest bed you'll ever see), the Cast Courts (replicas of world-famous sculptures and architectural wonders – look out for the fig leaf of Michelangelo’s David, created to protect Victorian sensibilities), the Raphael Cartoons (huge sketches by the Italian artist in preparation for equally huge tapestries), the Photography Centre (exploring the history of the medium from its earliest days) and the Jewellery Gallery (a priceless, jaw-dropping collection covering millennia of necklaces, earrings and bracelets). Part of the fun at the V&A though is getting lost in the sometimes confusing labyrinth of galleries and stumbling upon your own highlights.
For fresh air, the landscaped John Madejski Garden is a lovely shaded inner courtyard. Cross it to reach the original Refreshment Rooms (Morris, Gamble and Poynter Rooms), dating from the 1860s and redesigned by McInnes Usher McKnight Architects (MUMA), who also renovated the Medieval and Renaissance galleries (1350–1600) to the right of the Grand Entrance. The rooms form the world's first restaurant in a museum; the Morris Room does a splendid afternoon tea for £30 per person. There is also the Garden Cafe in the John Madejski Garden itself.
The museum is open until 10pm on Friday evenings, although the number of open galleries is reduced.