The Victoria and Albert Museum has just triumphed as the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year
With over 4.5 million objects and seven miles of galleries, the Victoria and Albert Museum is one of the biggest museums of decorative arts in the world. It is also one of the most beautiful. Take the Medieval and Renaissance sculpture gallery, just to start with, on your right as you enter from Cromwell Road – however many times you’ve been to the V&A, it’s hard to resist wandering in to that beautiful light-drenched space and marvelling at the figures beneath the glass roof, each with its own rich story.
Like many buildings on the site in South Kensington known as Albertopolis – the Science and Natural History museums, Imperial College, the Royal Colleges of Art and Music, and Royal Albert Hall – the seeds of the V&A were sown at the Great Exhibition of 1851, a pivotal event right in the middle of the 19th century which was the brainchild of Prince Albert.
In the wake of the First Industrial Revolution, the world was invited to display its achievements at the Great Exhibition – an event recorded at the original entrance to the museum, on the north side of what is now the John Madejski Garden. (A stretch of grass was all that used to lie between this entrance and Cromwell Road.) On the pediment of this building Queen Victoria, styled as Greek goddess, hands out wreaths to the countries that took part in the Great Exhibition. In a move away from the fashion for Gothic Revival at the time, that original building, in warm red-brick and terracotta with mosaic decoration, recalls the elegance of northern Italian Renaissance architecture; its partner in style is the Royal Albert Hall, which is perhaps no surprise. Henry Cole, the museum’s first director, was deeply involved with both projects.
The eternally grieving queen wanted it to be called the Albert Museum, but the government put its foot down: there were enough memorials to Albert, she was told. The Victorian and Albert was, in fact, the museum’s third name. Opening as the Museum of Manufactures in Marlborough House in 1852, it was later renamed the South Kensington Museum when it was established in what was then Brompton in 1857 (South Kensington was thought to sound more upmarket), with its final christening taking place in 1899 when Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone of new buildings along Exhibition Road and Cromwell Road.