Although the queen didn’t get her way in the naming of the building, her husband’s presence can still be felt in the museum, not least in the unforgettable Cast Courts, which were his idea and house a remarkable array of plaster casts taken from some of the world’s most famous sights including the museum’s tallest item, Trajan’s Column, reproduced from the marble original in Rome and displayed as two separate towers.
There’s also a copy of Michelangelo’s David, which arrived for Queen Victoria from the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1857. One can only imagine the reaction of the blushing queen when the six-metre nude arrived on the doorstep, and David was swiftly re-routed to the museum and covered with a fig leaf half a metre high. That fig leaf has almost reached the same heady heights of fame as David himself, and currently stars in the V&A’s Undressed exhibition.
Despite the museum’s name, hardly any of the V&A’s collections belonged to Queen Victoria or Prince Albert (the most famous exception being a series of paintings, The Raphael Cartoons, which were loaned by Queen Victoria and are still on loan from HM the Queen today). However, a good place to explore the museum’s Victorian heritage is the fourth floor, where a model of the Crystal Palace, in which the Great Exhibition took place, can be admired, as well as numerous items from the exhibition itself and mementoes commemorating the great occasion.
Of particular note is Henry Courtney Selous’s painting The Opening of the Great Exhibition by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851, portraying the Archbishop of Canterbury blessing the exhibition as commissioners, ministers and dignitaries surround the royal family. Look out for the man in Chinese dress on the right of the painting, who has foxed historians for years as no official Chinese delegation attended the opening (one version of the story casts the opening, but looked so smart that he was invited to join the group).