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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London

What is the Victoria and Albert Museum?

The Victoria and Albert Museum is a world-leading museum in London with a permanent collection of 2.5 million objects.

victoria and albert museum

Victoria and Albert Museum History

The V&A is the world’s leading museum of art, design and performance. From fashion to ceramics, fine art to furniture, the museum’s unparalleled collections are some of the largest and most comprehensive in the world. Exploring this vast collection, you might discover Henry VIII’s writing desk, the exterior façade in carved wood of a 17th-century London townhouse (a rare survivor of the Great Fire of London), or the jewelled bracelets once worn by Marie Antoinette.

The museum holds the largest collection of Asian art in the world, with around 160,000 objects. Its centrepiece is the spectacular Ardabil Carpet, the world’s oldest dated carpet.

The Italian collection, spanning from the medieval to the neoclassical period, is unmatched outside Italy. Its highlight is the set of Raphael Cartoons, a set of seven full-scale tapestry designs commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 for the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Together, they are considered one of the greatest treasures of the Renaissance.

The museum was established in 1852 and originally based at Marlborough House on the Mall. It wasn’t until five years later that it migrated to its current magnificently decorated building. In 1899, the South Kensington Museum, as it was then known, was renamed after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, both great patrons of the arts and intimately involved with the museum’s formation.

Henry Cole, the first director, declared that it should be a ‘schoolroom for everyone’, and this mission statement remains fulfilled today: the museum’s 6.5 million objects represent over 5,000 years of human creativity, in virtually every medium and from across the globe, and can’t fail to excite, inform and inspire.

victoria and albert museum John Madejski Courtyard

The V&A’s Cast Courts were opened in 1873. This collection is the strongest embodiment of the museum’s founding mission as a centre for education. You are more than likely to see visitors and art students, as they have been since the 19th century, quietly sketching the casts. Here also you can see copies of some of the world’s most significant works of art, including a replica of Trajan’s Column, Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise and Michelangelo’s David. Rumour has it that Queen Victoria was so aghast at David’s nudity that a huge ceramic fig leaf was made to preserve his modesty and swiftly popped on for any future royal visit.

The V&A also houses one of the world’s largest libraries, dedicated to the study of fine and decorative arts. This public library holds some documents of great significance, including a collection of the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, hand-written texts by Charles Dickens and Beatrix Potter, and countless illuminated manuscripts.

Given the size of the collection, only a small percentage can be displayed at any one time, though this still means you will have around 2.5 million objects to choose from on your visit. If this sounds like thirsty work, make sure you visit the café, the world’s first museum refreshment room. Whilst luxuriating in its opulent décor, you can gaze into the John Madejski Garden, an intimate space surrounded by the wonderfully decorated façades of the exterior building.

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