Victoria and Albert Museum - History and Facts | History Hit

Victoria and Albert Museum

London, England, United Kingdom

The Victoria and Albert Museum displays millions of works of art from around the world and spans 5,000 years of history.

Amy Irvine

12 Mar 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum, better known as the V&A, is the world’s leading museum of art and design. It houses a permanent collection of over 2.3 million objects that span over 5,000 years of human creativity.

History of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Origins: The V&A was founded in May 1852 with a mission was to educate designers, manufacturers and the public in art and design. Its origins lie in the Great Exhibition of 1851 – the world’s first international display of design and manufacturing.

Following the Exhibition, its creator, Prince Albert, saw the need to maintain and improve the standards of British industry to compete in the international marketplace. He urged its profits to be channelled into developing a cultural district of museums devoted to art and science education, of which the V&A was first.

Initially known as the Museum of Manufactures and located at Marlborough House in Pall Mall, the museum was transferred to Somerset House later that year, then moved to its current home on Exhibition Road in 1857. For over 40 years it was known as the South Kensington Museum, but was later renamed after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in May 1899 to commemorate Albert’s role in its establishment. In what was to be her last public ceremony, Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone.

Museum for all: In 1858, late-night openings were made possible by the use of gas lighting. This was “to ascertain practically what hours are most convenient to the working classes” according to its first director, Henry Cole, who also declared that the museum should be a “schoolroom for everyone”.

Cole also instigated the concept of a museum restaurant to encourage people to come and enjoy the culture, having learnt about visitors’ needs while managing the Great Exhibition. Thus the V&A had the world’s first museum café.

Wartime: When World War Two broke out, most of the V&A’s collection was sent to a quarry in Wiltshire, to Montacute House in Somerset, or to a tunnel near Aldwych tube station for safety. Larger items remained, sand-bagged and bricked in.

Some galleries were used as a school for children evacuated from Gibraltar, and the South Court became a canteen for the Royal Air Force and later for Bomb Damage Repair Squads – the museum itself received only minor bomb damage.

After featuring in the 1946 Britain Can Make It exhibition, by 1948 most of the collections had been returned.

Post-war: In July 1973, the V&A became the first museum in Britain to present a rock concert to encourage young people to museums.

The museum embarked on a major £150m renovation programme in 2001 called the “FuturePlan”, to ensure exhibits were better displayed and met modern expectations for museum facilities.

Victoria and Albert Museum today

A new Exhibition Road Quarter project opened in June 2017, providing 6,400 square metres of extra space – the largest expansion at the museum in over 100 years. It includes a new entrance on Exhibition Road, a porcelain-tiled courtyard (The Sackler Courtyard) and a new 1,100-square-metre underground gallery space (The Sainsbury Gallery).

In March 2018, it was announced that the Duchess of Cambridge would become the first royal patron of the museum.

The museum houses many of the UK’s national collections and some of the greatest resources for the study of architecture, furniture, fashion, textiles, photography, sculpture, painting, jewellery, glass, ceramics, book arts, Asian art and design, theatre and performance.

As with other national British museums, entrance is free, though some exhibitions and events carry a separate charge.

Getting to the Victoria and Albert Museum

The V&A is in South Kensington, London. The nearest tube stations are South Kensington (5-minute walk), Gloucester Road (10-minute walk) or Victoria Station (35-minute walk). Bike-hire is available at Exhibition Road and Thurloe Place, and several bus routes stop at the museum.

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