Housing a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects, Victoria and Albert Museum is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design. Its collections of ceramics, glass, textiles, costumes, ironwork, jewellery, furniture, sculpture, prints, drawings and photographs are among the largest, most comprehensive and important in the world.
The museum collection spans 5,000 years of art, from ancient times to the present day, in virtually every medium, from the cultures of Europe, North America, and Asia, to North Africa. The museum possesses the world’s largest collection of post-classical sculpture and the holdings of Italian Renaissance items are the most comprehensive outside Italy. The departments of Asia include art from South Asia, China, Japan, Korea and the Islamic world. The East Asian collections are among the best in Europe, with particular strengths in ceramics and metalwork, while the Islamic collection is amongst the richest in the Western world. Like in other national British museums, entrance to the museum has been free since 2001.
The museum has its origins in the Great Exhibition of 1851, after which some of the exhibits were obtained and formed a collection that covered both applied arts and sciences. The museum was officially opened by Queen Victoria in 1857. By that time it was the first museum in the world to provide so-called refreshment rooms.
The museum’s primary aim was to exhibit the collections of both applied arts and science as educational resources to help boost productive industry. In these early years the practical use of the collection was very much emphasised as opposed to that of ‘high art’ at the National Gallery, and scholarship at the British Museum. The laying of the foundation stone to the left of the main entrance of the building on 17 May 1899 was the last official public appearance by Queen Victoria. It was during this ceremony that the change of name from the South Kensington Museum (the original name) to the Victoria and Albert Museum was made public. In July 1973, as part of its outreach programme to young people, the V&A became the first museum in Britain to present a rock concert. This innovative approach to bringing young people to museums was a hallmark of the then director Roy Strong and was subsequently emulated by some other British museums. Nowadays, the museum participates in several regional, as well as international programmes.
The Victoria & Albert Museum is split into four collections departments: Asia; furniture, textiles and fashion; sculpture, metalwork, ceramics and glass, and word and image. The collection departments are further divided into sixteen display areas, whose combined collection numbers over 6.5 million objects, not all displayed or stored at the V&A.
The museum collection departments include the following sections: architecture, Asia, British galleries (cross department display), ceramics, childhood, contemporary, fashion and jewellery, furniture, glass, metalwork, paintings and drawings, photography, prints and books, sculpture, textiles. The museum has 145 galleries, but given the vast extent of the collections only a small percentage is ever on display. Many acquisitions have been made possible only with the assistance of the National Art Collections Fund.
The museum was located in the building previously occupied by Brompton Park House, which was further extended with piecemeal additions by different architects. Thus the structure combines several architectural styles, including Italian Renaissance and Victorian Gothic
The main façade, built from red brick and Portland stone, stretches 220 metres along Cromwell Gardens and was designed by Aston Webb after he had won the competition to extend the museum in 1891. Stylistically it is a strange hybrid – although much of the detail can be classified as Renaissance, there are also some medieval influences. The main entrance consisting of a series of shallow arches supported by slender columns and niches with twin doors separated by a pier is Romanesque in form, but Classical in detail. In a similar way the tower above the main entrance has an open work crown surmounted by a statue of Fame, a feature of late Gothic architecture and common in Scotland, but the detail is Classical.
The interior makes much use of marble in the entrance hall and flanking staircases, although the galleries were originally designed to be white, with restrained classical detail and mouldings, very much in contrast to the elaborate decoration of the Victorian galleries.
The central garden was redesigned by Kim Wilkie and opened as the John Madejski Garden in 2005. The design is a subtle blend of the traditional and modern, with formal layout; there is an elliptical water feature lined in stone with steps around the edge, which may be drained to use the area for receptions, gatherings or exhibition purposes.
The period of Queen Victoria’s reign, between 1837 and 1901, and commonly known as the Victorian era, is called by some the second English Renaissance. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence. Culturally, there was a shift from the rationalism of the Georgian period towards Romanticism and mysticism with regard to religion, social values, and the arts. The era is also popularly associated with the values of social and sexual restraint.
In ideology, politics, and society the Victorian era brought astonishing innovations and changes: democracy, feminism, unionisation of workers, socialism, Marxism, and other modern movements. In fact, the age of Darwin, Marx, and Freud was not only the first that experienced modern problems, but also the first that came up with modern solutions.
The Victorians were impressed by science and progress, and felt that they could better society in the same way as they were developing technology. During the Victorian era, science grew into the discipline it is today. An important development during the Victorian era was the improvement of communication links.
Stagecoaches, canals, steam ships and most notably the railways all allowed goods, raw materials and people to be moved about, rapidly facilitating trade and industry. Although initially developed in the early years of the 19th century, gas lighting also became widespread during the Victorian era in industry, homes, public buildings and the streets.
In international relations, the Victorian era was a long period of peace, known as the Pax Britannica, and economic, colonial and industrial consolidation. Domestically, the agenda was increasingly liberal, with a number of shifts in the direction of gradual political and industrial reforms and the widening of the voting franchise.
The population of England almost doubled in the Victorian Era and the population of Scotland also increased rapidly. At the same time, however, about 15 million emigrants left the United Kingdom and settled mostly in the United States, Canada, and Australia.
The 19th-century Britain saw a huge population increase accompanied by rapid urbanisation, stimulated by the Industrial Revolution. The large numbers of skilled and unskilled people looking for work kept wages down to a barely subsistence level. Available housing was scarce and expensive, resulting in overcrowding.
The Victorian era became notorious for the employment of young children in factories, mines and as chimney sweeps. Child labour, often brought about by economic hardship, played an important role in the Industrial Revolution from its outset.
Children of the poor were expected to help towards the family budget, often working long hours in dangerous jobs for low wages. Children as young as four were put to work. In coal mines children began work at the age of 5 and generally died before the age of 25. Many children (and adults) worked 16-hour days.