The V&A is a funny place. I always look forward to going, but once I arrive, I can never stay for long. The dark, yet welcoming rotunda, illuminated by an 11-metre high Dale Chihuly chandelier, is a busy meeting grounds that opens into one of the best museum shops I've ever visited. But you don't necessarily have to enter the museum through the gift shop; from the main entrance one might weave out of the Asian galleries and into a bright, airy space where Renaissance sculpture seems to float above stands. Or you can always go West, into special exhibitions. Once, I saw flecks of gold sewn into ordinary canvas. And yards and yards of near-weightless, lipstick-red paper, carved by scissors and knives that drifted in veils and soft folds that skimmed the floor like a stream of rubied koi.
People spend days wandering through the galleries of this museum. If the V&A offered campouts there would be a waiting list. I have spent large, lose-track-of-time amounts of time in its galleries, and I never fail to leave feeling like I've been blissfully smothered by the unquantifiable weight of a few million historical objects. But I think that's good. I do, though, most enjoy the museum after taking quicker and more frequent trips. At the V&A, I'm not as interested in camping out. I like coming back for snippets.
Am I lazy to love the V&A on a come-and-go basis?
I don't know of many better free, warm, effortlessly intellectual places one could, ahem, kill time. I used to spin a textured globe with my childhood best friend, Allison. Up in her treehouse, we'd give it a whirl, close our eyes and wherever our fingers landed, we'd imagine ourselves for the rest of an afternoon, which in our playland could last weeks. It's the same at the V&A. "Pick a room ! Any room !" a collective voice shouts around you upon entering. Stay for 5 minutes or 5 hours; just go somewhere — any gallery in the building — and you'll acquire more knowledge or appreciation or curiosity than you have in at least a while.
On Saturday afternoon, I walked up Exhibition Road in the ever-present rain. There is a tunnel to avoid a good drenching, leading to the museums along Exhibition and Cromwell. But there is something so daunting and impressive about walking up to the imposing Portland-stoned façade of a building that spans more than a dozen acres. You don't want to waste the view in an effort to stay dry (you’ll end up failing at that later anyway). Although I had an interest in the Diaghilev exhibition, the point was to find the National Art Library, which is housed in the V&A, and turns out, it's actually quite easy to do. Aside from the 20-minute cloakroom queue (in order to use the library, you must turn your bag in at the cloakroom and take only what you need in a plastic sack provided by the attendant), getting to the library (which I imagined would be locked behind a hidden door) was an easy walk through the museum shop, a right, and then up a flight of scaffolded stairs.
The air becomes slightly more musty just one floor up from the ground level of the building. Beyond the surprisingly well guarded entrance of the library, are shelves stacked with the oldest and finest art books to study or use for reference. Rows of green lights narrowly illuminate the countless black, leather-bound desks that span across two rooms. Even in gloomy weather, it is difficult to ignore the view of the John Madejski Garden from the windows. A graphite-colored sheet of Nimbostratus clouds loom overhead, containing the brick jewel box that sparkles with slick water and golden lamplight, encasing a spongy, waterlogged lawn of emerald and myrtle that surrounds a glimmering oval pool. On a scale of distraction, the scene is a 10.
In order to learn anything about Foucault and the author-function, I forced myself to sit on the side farthest from the windows. Though I no longer looked over the garden, after a few hours of studying, I could not shake the bookish, British romanticism of the place. I suppose that’s a good thing because for the first time in a while, I didn’t feel like doing one of my V&A fast tracks. Contemporary and ancient things and notions surrounded me. Sometimes you don’t even have to open any books in a library to learn or observe something that changes you. I worked until the library closed, leaving the way I came, except this time — with my back towards the museum as I walked outside — I took the tunnel. And with the usual exhaustion replaced by exhilaration, I promised my desk — Number 72 — that I’d come back soon.