The Victoria and Albert Museum is a product of the modern industrial age. Before the late eighteenth century craftsmen and women conceived of and generally made their products. With the advent of industrialisation a group of people known as designers came into being. It was a designer's job to create a product which could then be produced by industrial means. Initially there was a lack of design expertise, and a sense that design only had to concern itself with ornamentation. Inspite of the technical accomplishments of nineteenth century British engineering, it soon became apparent that Britain was falling behind in terms of design. This was made clear by the Great Exhibition of 1851, organised by civil servant, designer and writer Henry Cole and Albert, Prince Consort to Queen Victoria. While huge crowds were making the Exhibition a great popular success, industry observers were comparing British goods on display with those from abroad and found them wanting. A year after the Great Exhibition the Museum of Manufacturers was founded by Henry Cole. Using a collection acquired mainly from the Exhibition, this new museum's aim was to promote art and design, and to contribute to the improvement of British products. Displays were directed towards educating students, artisans and manufacturers, as well as general visitors. Although this utilitarian aim was soon toned down, a marked improvement in design during the 1850s encouraged other countries to set up similar institutions. By 1890 almost every European capital had acquired its own Museum of Manufacturers. Germany had about thirty! The Museum of Manufacturers, called the Victoria and Albert from 1899, represented a crucial stage in the development of modern society.
Today the V&A is no longer a meeting place for design ideas. In 1913 the scientific and industrial collection was taken to the nearby Science Museum, and the old museum was switched to its present role as a collection of decorative art. But even if we think of the V&A in terms of decorative arts, this does not lessen the significance of its collection. The history of art shows that there was always a huge weight of expectation on areas of art considered important. For many centuries fine art was confined to churches and cathedrals, and its subject matter was proscribed by its religious setting. It was only in the decorative arts, with much lower expectations, that artists could be wider in their scope. During the Renaissance when art finally began to leave the Church, it was decorative art that led the way, with many famous artists engaging in this kind of work. The fifteenth century artist Botticelli, for example, painted furnishings for domestic use.
Another advantage of the decorative arts, from an historical point of view, is that they offer a very intimate view into history. When I visited, a display devoted to British history took me on a walk through interiors, fashions, paintings and ceramics of the period 1500 to 1900. I saw the change from the plain clothing of Cromwell's rule, to the exuberant fashions of the Restoration following Charles II's return to the throne. A pair of pink silk shoes worn to a party brought the nature of the Restoration back to me as powerfully as any history book.
The rest of the museum has collections from other parts of the world. One of the most dramatic areas is the Cast Courts, two huge, sky-lighted rooms, two stories in height, which contain hundreds of examples of sculpture and other stone work. One of these rooms contains a full scale replica of Trajan's Column from Rome. The Museum is also home to the national collection of photography, and since the beginning of 2007 a large collection related to theatre, which was once housed at the Theatre Museum in the West End.
As you might expect from a museum dedicated to decorative art, the Victoria and Albert Museum is a very beautiful place to visit. It makes you think that perhaps decoration, rather than being something superficial, is at the heart of life, like a polished sheen in which you can see things.
As a footnote, walk down Exhibition Road past the V&A and you will notice a scattering of pits varying in size along the stone blocks of the museums walls. This is bomb damage from World War Two, left as a memorial to that conflict.
Address: Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL
Opening Times: Please use contact details below.
Directions: The Museum stands on the corner of Cromwell Gardens and Exhibition Road in Kensington, London. The nearest Underground station is South Kensington. A tunnel leads from the station to the complex of museums in Kensington (Natural History Museum, Science Museum, and the V & A.) There is an entrance into the basement of the V&A directly from the tunnel leading from South Kensington Underground station. Click here for an interactive map centred on the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Access: A wide range of facilities are available for visitors with disabilities, and all the galleries are accessible to people in wheelchairs. The building is nevertheless Grade 1 listed, and was built without necessarily considering the needs of visitors with mobility problems. The Disability and Access Officer will advise on: 020 7942 2766, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Adapted toilets are available.
For visitors with hearing difficulties there are hearing loops at the Information Desks, Gallery Information Points, Lecture Theatre and retail outlets. Sound enhancement equipment is available from the Information Desk. Some videos within the galleries are subtitled.
For people with visual disabilities there are escort services, which require advance booking, tape, large print and Braille guides, and a touch programme. Ask at the Information Desk. Dedicated software for people with sight problems is available on the computer terminals within the museum.
telephone: 020 7942 2000
web site: www.vam.ac.uk