The Victoria and Albert Museum (a.k.a. the V&A) is the world’s largest museum dedicated to design and the decorative arts, with around 145 galleries. The V&A has its origins in the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in Hyde Park. Prince Albert wanted to use the profit from the exhibition to fund permanent establishments dedicated to industrial education and the arts. The first fruit of his vision was the South Kensington Museum, opened to the public on 24th June 1857.
The early years
The museum, in the Brompton area, was initially housed in a temporary building clad in sheets of iron, earning it the name the ‘Brompton Boilers.’ Its original collections were formed of objects from industry, science, and the decorative arts. Henry Cole, the museum’s first director, used unique methods to encourage people to enjoy culture, he introduced three refreshment rooms to the museum, an unknown concept at the time, thus becoming the world’s first museum to have a restaurant. The South Kensington Museum was also the first in the world to use gas lighting in the galleries, allowing for late night openings. Cole recognised that this gave the working class a more convenient time to enjoy culture, stating that “The evening opening of public museums may furnish a powerful antidote to the gin palace.”
Figure 1 – The Centre Refreshment Room (late 1860s)
Source: Museum no. E.655-2009. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The next few decades saw the inception of art and science schools and the construction of a lecture theatre and new galleries. The ‘Brompton Boilers’ were dismantled in 1867 and re-erected in Bethnal Green. This is now the home of the V&A Museum of Childhood. Towards the end of the 1890s an architectural competition was held to find someone to complete the museum, and the architect Aston Webb was chosen. He provided the designs for a new façade, new galleries and the entrance hall and rotunda. In 1899, in her last ever official public appearance, Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for the new works and renamed the museum the Victoria and Albert Museum. The museum was completed in 1909.
Figure 2 – Bird’s eye view of the Aston Webb extension.
Source: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The V&A in the twentieth century
During the Second World War many of the collections were moved elsewhere. Whilst only receiving minor damage in bombing raids, there are still visible marks on the west façade of the museum that were caused by bomb damage. Following the War, the “Britain Can Make It” exhibition was hosted at the museum in 1946, showcasing the latest in British fashion and manufacturing design.
Footage of King George VI and Queen Mary at the Britain Can Make It Exhibition, British Pathé (1946): https://www.britishpathe.com/video/britain-has-made-it-shop-window/query/victoria+and+albert+museum
The Museum today
Today the V&A is home to 2.3 million objects spanning over 5000 years of history. The Duchess of Cambridge was made the first Royal Patron of the museum in 2018.
Find out more:
E. P. Alexander, Museum Masters: Their Museums and Their Influence (London, 1983), pp. 141-176
J. Physick, The Victoria and Albert Museum: The History of Its Building (London, 1982)
Opening times/ access:The V&A is open daily, 10:00-17:45, except 24th-26th December. Fridays have late night opening until 22:00. Entrance is free but some exhibitions have a separate charge.