The Victoria and Albert Museum (often abbreviated as the V & A) in London is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, housing a permanent collection of over 2.3 million objects. It was founded in 1852 and named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
The V & A is located in the Brompton district of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, in an area that has become known as “Albertopolis” because of its association with Prince Albert, the Albert Memorial and the major cultural institutions with which it was associated. These include the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Royal Albert Hall. The museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Like other national British museums, entrance to the museum has been free since 2001.
The V & A covers 12.5 acres (5.1 ha) and 145 galleries. Its collection spans 5,000 years of art, from ancient times to the present day, from the cultures of Europe, North America, Asia and North Africa. The holdings of ceramics, glass, textiles, customs, silver, ironwork, jewelery, furniture, medieval objects, sculpture, prints and printmaking, drawings and photographs are among the largest and most comprehensive in the world.
The museum owns the largest collection of post-classical sculpture, with the holdings of Italian Renaissance items being the largest 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 among the largest in the Western world. Overall, it is one of the largest museums in the world.
Since 2001, the museum has embarked on a major £ 150m renovation program, which has seen major overhaul of the departments, including the introduction of newer galleries, gardens, shops and visitor facilities.
New 17th- and 18th-century European galleries were opened on 9 December 2015. These restored the original Aston Webb interiors and host the European collections 1600-1815.
The V & A has its origins in the Great Exhibition of 1851, with which Henry Cole, the museum’s first director, was involved in planning; initially it was known as the Museum of Manufactures, first opening in May 1852 at Marlborough House, but by September it had been transferred to Somerset House. At this stage the collections covered both applied art and science. Several of the exhibits from the Exhibition were purchased at the nucleus of the collection. By February 1854 discussions were underway to transfer the museum to the current site and it was renamed South Kensington Museum. In 1855 the German architect Gottfried Semper, at the request of Cole, produced a design for the museum, but it was rejected by the Board of Trade as too expensive. The site is occupied by Brompton Park House; this was extended including the first refreshment rooms opened in 1857, the museum being the first in the world to provide such a facility.
The official opening by Queen Victoria was on June 20, 1857. In the following year, late night openings were introduced, made possible by the use of gas lighting. This was to enable in the words of Cole “to ascertain practically what hours are most convenient to the working classes” -this was linked to the use of the collections of both applied art and science the educational resources to help boost productive industry. In these early years the practical use of the collection was very much emphasized as opposed to that of “High Art” at the National Gallery and scholarship at the British Museum. George Wallis (1811-1891), the first Keeper of Fine Art Collection, passionately promoted the idea of wide art education through the museum collections. This led to the transfer to the museum of the School of Design which had been founded in 1837 at Somerset House; after the transfer it was referred to the Art School or Art Training School, later to become the Royal College of Art which finally achieved full independence in 1949. From the 1860s to the 1880s the scientific collections had been moved from the main museum site to various improvised galleries to the west of Exhibition Road. In 1893 the “Science Museum” had effectively come into existence when a separate director was appointed.
Aston Webb building (to the left of the main entrance) 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 to the Victoria and Albert Museum was made public. Queen Victoria’s address during the ceremony, as recorded in the London Gazette, ended: “I trust that it will remain for ages to Monument of discernment Liberality and a Source of Refinement and Progress.”
“The Grand Design”, first toured in North America from 1997 (Baltimore Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), returning to London in 1999. To accompany and support the exhibition, the museum published a book, Grand Design, which has made available for reading online on its website.