From 'Tippoo's Tiger' to the Ardabil Carpet, this trail showcases 10 must-see museum objects – your perfect introduction to the V&A.
The following objects can all be found in our ground-floor (Level 0) or Europe 1600 – 1815 galleries (Level -1). Simply click on the link to find the object on our digital map.
Stop 1: Inner Voice (The Muse) by Rodin, 1896 – 97
Map link: Sculpture, Room 21, Level 0
Widely considered the father of modern sculpture, Auguste Rodin (1840 – 1917) was the first living artist to have an exhibition at the V&A, in 1914. This coincided with the outbreak of the First World War, and he later donated his sculptures to the museum as a 'gift to the Nation', in a symbol of friendship between France and Britain. The amputated figure of Inner Voice shows Rodin's experimentation with form. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of it, "Never was the human body so bent by its own soul".
Stop 2: Evening coat by Elsa Schiaparelli and Jean Cocteau, 1937
Map link: Fashion, Room 40, Level 0
Witty and elegant, this evening coat is typical of the designs of Elsa Schiaparelli (1890 – 1973), who ran a successful couture house in Paris in the 1920s and '30s. Schiaparelli once wrote: "Dress designing ... is to me not a profession but an art". She collaborated with many of the leading Surrealists, including the French artist and film-maker Jean Cocteau who drew the coat's design – a vase formed by two faces in profile ready to kiss. This type of 'double image' was a recurring motif for Cocteau and other Surrealist artists, including Salvador Dalí.
Stop 3: Betel nut container, 1780 – 1885
Map link: South-East Asia, Room 47a, Level 0
This richly decorated ceremonial container is in the shape of a mythical bird, symbolising longevity. It was designed to hold betel, a mild drug used throughout Asia, and once formed part of the royal regalia of King Thibaw, the last monarch of Burma (now Myanmar). When the British overthrew the king in 1885, they seized the regalia and brought it to England. It was displayed in the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) from 1890 until 1964, when it was returned to Myanmar. As a gesture of friendship and thanks, the Myanmar government gave the container back to Britain.
Stop 4: Robe de chambre, 1690 – 1720
Map link: Europe, Room 5, Level -1
By the 17th century, European men wore loose gowns like this to relax at home with family or entertain friends or business associates. Called 'robe de chambre' in France, these alternatives to the formal fitted suit were made of different fabrics according to the wearer's needs and tastes. The form and luxurious fabric of this rare gown reveal the growing importance of global trade at the time: its cut is based on the Japanese kimono and its silk is from China. Many artists and aspiring intellectuals chose to sit for their portraits in gowns like this.
Stop 5: Samson Slaying a Philistine by Giambologna, 1560 – 62
Map link: Medieval & Renaissance, Room 50a, Level 0
The sculptor Giovanni Bologna, known as Giambologna, was admired for the sense of action and movement in his sculptures, which have inspired artists for centuries. Here Samson wields the jawbone of an ass to strike a Philistine with a deadly blow, in a scene from the Bible's Old Testament. He based the dramatic pose on a composition by Michelangelo. The figures' spiralling interconnected bodies mean the sculpture has no single viewpoint. Carving deep hollows into the marble, Giambologna flaunted his technical skill with a composition supported on only five points.
Stop 6: The Sanchi Tope, 1870 – 74
Map link: Cast Courts, Room 46, Level 0
This painting records the making of a plaster cast of the Eastern Gateway of the Buddhist complex of Sanchi Stupa, one of the oldest surviving stone structures in India. It shows the feat of labour involved in copying such huge architectural objects, with Indian workers in the foreground carrying the completed parts in crates. The museum commissioned the 10-metre high plaster cast for its Architecture Courts (now the Cast Courts), which gave visitors the opportunity to see reproductions of art and architecture from around the world. The making and display of the Sanchi gateway, together with many other casts of South Asian architecture, also asserted Britain's colonial authority over India. The monumental cast was destroyed in the 1950s.
Stop 7: Gyeol_Flow bench by FABRIKR, 2016
Map link: Korea, Room 47g, Level 0
Korean design company FABRIKR upcycles discarded textiles, modifying their physical properties to make new and surprising composite objects. Here scraps of denim jeans have been pressed and moulded with epoxy resin to a wooden plank to create a small bench. The indigo blue layers echo the flow of the wood grain. Kim Dong Gyu and Kim Seog Jo, the design duo behind the company, say that "By our reinterpretation of resources thrown away recklessly, we would like to send a message to many people about how they could be used with value and specialty by means of our creation activity and projects." An example of contemporary sustainable design, the museum acquired the bench in 2016.
Stop 8: The Mazarin Chest, about 1640
Map link: Japan, Room 45, Level 0
This extraordinary lacquer chest is one of the most important objects in the V&A's Japan collection. It was made by highly skilled craftsmen in Kyoto specifically for export to Europe, where ownership of such a luxurious object signified wealth, status and taste. The chest's name comes from the coat of arms of the French family Mazarin-La Meilleraye, which appears on the chest's key. In 1800, William Beckford, a British novelist, art collector and slave owner, became the chest's owner. Today, Beckford is credited with establishing new collecting practices which continue to influence contemporary collectors, yet these were funded by wealth secured through the exploitation of enslaved Africans.
Stop 9: The Ardabil Carpet, 1539 – 40
Map link: Islamic Middle East, Room 42, Level 0
Woven over 400 years ago for a shrine in north-west Iran, the Ardabil Carpet is the oldest dated carpet in the world, as well as one of the largest and most spectacular. An inscription in a panel at one end contains the date '946' in the Muslim calendar, equivalent to 1539 – 40. The carpet's design and craftsmanship are exceptional, with highly dense knotting averaging 5300 knots in every 10 square cms. It was sold in the late 19th century, possibly to fund urgent building repairs to the shrine after an earthquake.
Stop 10: 'Tippoo's Tiger', about 1793
Map link: South Asia, Room 41, Level 0
'Tippoo's Tiger' is an almost life-sized model of a tiger devouring a European enemy. When its handle is turned, the victim's dying cries can be heard from a mechanical organ hidden inside. A potent symbol of strength, the tiger was a favourite motif of Tipu Sultan, who was ruler of Mysore in south India from 1782 to 1799. A powerful leader, he fought off four attacks on his kingdom by the British East India Company before he was defeated and killed in 1799. The British took this tiger from Tipu's palace and exhibited it in the East India Company's museum in London. It became a favourite with visitors, and was moved to the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) in 1879.