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London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (3:28)

London, England

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum contains the finest collection of treasures from the British Empire with fascinating artifacts from its powerhouse past and far-flung holdings.

Complete Video Script

The Victorian Age was an exuberant time. The Neo-Gothic Albert Memorial reminds London how Victoria’s beloved husband Albert (the only one who called her “Vickie”) did so much to promote technology and culture during that industrial boom time. The statues at the base herald the great accomplishments of Britain’s 19th-century glory days.

Albert died in 1861. His wife, Queen Victoria, was possibly the world’s most determined mourner. She wore black for the standard two years — and then tacked on 38 more…for good measure.

Taking mourning to new heights, she required that the city’s once colorful finials be painted black — as they remain today. The queen built grand monuments to her Albert, like the Royal Albert Hall.

The immense Victoria and Albert Museum is named for the royal couple who did so much to support the many triumphs of their day. Like lots of London’s top attractions, it’s free.

The V&A grew out of the Great Exhibition of 1851. This first “world’s fair,” housed in a temporary glass and steel people’s palace, celebrated the Industrial Revolution and the greatness of Britain.

The theme of the Britain Galleries is “style, taste, and design from 1500 through 1900.”

Four hundred years of English fashion history are corseted into a series of exquisite display cases.

This painting, from around 1600, is of a woman wearing this actual garment. It was typical formal daywear: linen and silk embroidered with silver thread. Nightcaps were fashionable among aristocratic men. This tortoise-shell and silver toiletries kit shows that in 1640, careful grooming was as important as dressing magnificently

In the 1670s shoes were called “straights,” and there was no difference between right and left. Whalebone and lacing kept torsos flat and long. Fans were tools for flirting. It was said, while a man’s weapon was a sword, “a woman’s weapon [was] a fan…and the fan [did] more damage.”

In the 1740s a rich woman’s court dress was an extravagant display of wealth — even if it meant she entered rooms sideways.

The huge collection illustrates the far reach of the British Empire. From its exquisite Indian art to its sumptuous hall of Chinese artifacts.

The hall of casts is filled with plaster copies of Europe’s greatest statuary, made for the benefit of London’s 19th-century art students who couldn’t afford a rail pass. Students could compare the Renaissance genius of Donatello, whose David was Europe’s first male nude since Roman times, and that of Michelangelo a century later, with his more heroic David.

Around the back you’ll find that this David came with an accessory…a clip-on fig leaf. As this was the Victorian Age, when royal ladies came to visit they’d hang it on the statue for modesty.

If the delights of the V&A whet your shopping appetite, London’s Victorian galleries evoke shopping in the 19th century. And all over London you’ll find inviting little shops for whatever treasure you fancy.