The V&A’s 20 Greatest Treasures

September 20, 2012

I expect many of you will know the old story of the Judgment of Paris. Paris is given the unenviable task of deciding who is the most beautiful of three goddesses. There is no easy answer to this problem: whichever goddess he chooses, he inevitably offends the others. I got a small taste of Paris’s dilemma when I was recently asked to write the V&A’s new leaflet, 20 Greatest Treasures.

The aim of this leaflet was to suggest 20 things that new visitors to the museum should try and see. We knew from visitors’ comments, as well as the evidence of our own eyes, that many people coming to the V&A for the first time feel completely overwhelmed by the size of the building, the scale of the galleries and the sheer quantity of objects on display. They don’t know where to begin in terms of where to go and what to see. So we wanted to give them a selection of objects that reflect the range and diversity of the museum’s collections.

So far, so good. But with 2.75 million objects in the collections and about 60,000 objects on display, how on earth do we make a start when it comes to choosing just 20 objects for the tour? We tried asking colleagues but we were quickly inundated with suggestions. So we decided to establish a few criteria.  First, the objects had to be historically significant. Second, they had to be rare and valuable. Third, they had to represent an important strand of the V&A’s holdings. We take for granted that everything in the museum is beautiful! We also wanted the objects to be spread around the building so that visitors would be encouraged to visit galleries on the top floors as well as those near the main entrance. And finally, we wanted most of the objects to be large enough to see properly and be easy to find – this was one of the toughest challenges in a building that has many thousands of metres of galleries and corridors!

There were a few objects we would have liked to include but couldn’t. I’m sure people will say ‘Where is the Great Bed of Ware?’. Well, unfortunately for us, but happily for visitors to the West country, it has gone back to Ware for a special exhibition that will last a year. It will go into the next edition of the trail.

So we ended up with a mixture of sculpture – Italian, British, and Chinese; painting – Renaissance and 19th century; furniture – bed, cabinet and chest; textiles – carpet, dress, and tapestry; ceramics – medieval and contemporary; and books – Leonardo and Shakespeare; and well as several other extraordinary but uncategorisable things. Some choices like the Raphael Cartoons seem uncontentious; others, like John Evelyn’s Cabinet, may be more subjective. In the end it will be up to visitors to decide whether the objects on the trail match their idea of the V&A’s Greatest Treasures.

We are very keen to hear what people think, and we are expecting to make a different selection every time we reprint the tour. So please do try it out – leaflets are displayed in racks on the main information desk and in the Sackler Centre. And let us know if you have a favourite object that you think qualifies for inclusion next time.

4 comments so far, view or add yours


It is a really helpful and enjoyable guide to use, so many thanks for the team’s efforts of object selection and leaflet design & production.

Part of the pleasure in such a tool is the surprising directions it can take one in, exploring aspects of the collection to give an even more nuanced experience of such wonderful exhibits.

I bought my copy at least a year ago, so has there been a revision since?

I found the 20 Treasures map a little difficult to follow, mainly because of the low light. However it is a brilliant trail and all the staff friendly and helpful. It is not always easy to find the room numbers.
The trail is excellent because it leads you through all the floors of the museum and is an excellent introduction for future visits, motivating one to return and discover more treasures.

It’s a great booklet that I have used to plan a school trip. It’s a shame you haven’t published a pdf copy of it anywhere on your website (or if you have, I can’t find it!).

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