Travel Story Victoria and Albert’s museum dream lives on

Photo of Mark Thornton

More than 65 million people a year visit London attractions — nearly three times the population of Australia. 

Of those, 5.9 million visited the British Museum last year, while the Victoria and Albert Museum received nearly 3.5 million, slightly fewer than the Natural History Museum, a personal favourite that continues to enchant me after a dozen visits.

The visitor numbers for museums are mind boggling. They serve to reinforce one’s hope for humanity in these troubled times. It is encouraging that so many want to share art and beauty for its own sake. 

The word museum has classical origins. Its Greek form, mouseion, meant “seat of the Muses” and described a philosophical institution or a place of contemplation.

Modern museums appeared during the Renaissance as private collections maintained by prominent individuals. Such collections symbolised the owners’ prestige and were elegant manifestations of their nobility as the ruling classes. 

The earliest recorded instance of a public body receiving a private collection occurred in the 16th century with bequests of the brothers Domenico Cardinal Grimani and Antonio Grimani to the Venetian republic in 1523. 

Interestingly, the first public museum, in the form of a corporate body to receive a private collection and display it publicly, was the University of Oxford.

In London, the iconic building known today as the Victoria and Albert Museum opened in 1909, though it began life at South Kensington in 1857, when it was named the South Kensington Museum. It was renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899 when Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone of new buildings along Exhibition Road and Cromwell Road.

The Queen wanted to call it the Albert Museum in memory of the love of her life but was gently persuaded her name belonged alongside his.

It soon became the world’s biggest museum of decorative art and design, a plaudit no other museum of style has surpassed. 

This was a time when wealthy Britannia bestrode the globe and the museum was built as a cultural icon to house the world’s very best art and design of the past 5000 years. It also symbolised the extraordinary partnership between a husband and a wife — the diminutive but universally powerful Queen Victoria and her brilliant consort Albert.

Britain’s status may have slipped back in the global order long since but the V&A, as it is affectionately known, still shines as a beacon for the arts and other works of human achievement. The museum stands on Cromwell Road, South Kensington.

The district is often described as the cultural centre of London for, apart from the V&A, it includes the Museum of Natural History, the Science Museum and the Albert Hall. It also includes the Albert Memorial, Queen Victoria’s shrine to her much-loved husband. 

The V&A was the brainchild of Prince Albert who intended it to be a museum for everyone. Its first director, Henry Cole, was the son of a middle-ranking army officer and apparently a true man of the people insisting the museum be kept open well into the evening because later hours were “most convenient to the working classes”. 

He also suggested the evening opening of public museums “may furnish a powerful antidote to the gin palace”.

Cole, a senior public servant with a record of innovative schemes to improve standards in industrial design while also encouraging art (he designed the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black), had attracted the attention of Prince Albert in the 1840s.

 It was he who encouraged the prince to support the Great Exhibition of Works of Industry of all Nations in 1851, the so-called Crystal Palace Exhibition which was an enormous popular and financial success, achieving a surplus equivalent to $9 million.

Cole was instrumental in ensuring, again with Albert’s backing, that the profits from the Great Exhibition were used to improve science and art education for the people.

 He had so impressed Albert with his hard work and ideas that when the prince subsequently needed someone to manage the V&A he was heard to say: “Get Cole!”

With such a CV it’s no surprise that Cole was instrumental in developing the V&A Museum. He even lived right opposite. Incidentally, he was the model for the “third gentleman” in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times.

Another of Cole’s many innovative ideas for the V&A was to collect plaster-cast reproductions and electrotypes of great sculptures from around the world, unique works that could not be bought but which he felt ought to be shared. Understanding the great educational benefits of these works, he created the Convention for Promoting Universal Reproductions of Works of Art.

 In 1867 he encouraged 15 European princes, including Albert, to sign up to an agreement that would establish a formal procedure for the exchange of casts between European museums.

One of the most famous examples is the plaster cast of David, originally carved from marble by the Italian genius Michelangelo in 1501-4. However, when located in the V&A the nude statue was a little startling for Victorian sensibilities. Cole arranged for a suitably proportioned fig leaf to be made and hung on the statue with a pair of hooks when dignitaries visited. 

The fig leaf is no longer used.

There are 11km of galleries in the V&A’s 5.1ha so you could spend days browsing and see only some of the most significant artefacts. It houses a true mix of works, from its glass collection — one of the biggest and the most comprehensive in the world, showcasing the development of design and technology in glassmaking over 3500 years — to an early 20th century vaudeville angel. The angel, the Spirit of Gaiety, is a big carved, gilded winged woman blowing a trumpet, originally designed to stand on top of the dome of London’s Gaiety Theatre and placed there in 1904.

The museum is truly eclectic and maintains a dynamic relationship with popular culture. It even has reproductions of English psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd’s album covers, such as the Dark Side of the Moon’s refracting prism and the giant inflatable pig flying over Battersea Power Station that graces Animals.

Among the other 4.5 million exhibits are a desk made in 1525 for King Henry VIII and beautiful tapestries such as the Triumph of Chastity over Love by an unknown medieval weaver. It’s a personal favourite and I stood in front of it for ages, marvelling at the quality of the design and handiwork that’s more than 500 years old. 

There is art from ancient times to the present from the cultures of Europe, North America, Asia and North Africa that demands to be noticed.

The holdings of ceramics, glass, textiles, costumes, silver, ironwork, jewellery, furniture, medieval objet d’arts, sculpture, prints and printmaking equipment, drawings and photographs are among the biggest and most comprehensive in the world.

Like the Museum of Natural History, when you walk out the door at closing time you’ll be surprised how long you’ve been in there while also realising how many galleries you’ve missed. Take the time to plan another visit; since 2001 there has been universal free admission to all Britain’s national museums. Mr Cole would be very pleased.

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