The Victoria and Albert Museum (often abbreviated as the V&A),is the world's largest museum of decorative arts and design, housing a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects. 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 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 to form the nucleus of the collection. By February 1854 discussions were underway to transfer the museum to the current site and it was renamed as the South Kensington Museum. The site was 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 22 June 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". In these early years the practical use of the collection was very much emphasised 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. 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. The laying of the foundation stone of the 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. London Gazette of the time ended: "I trust that it will remain for ages a Monument of discerning Liberality and a Source of Refinement and Progress."
The Victoria & Albert Museum is split into four Collections departments, Asia; Furniture, Textiles and Fashion; Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics & Glass and Word & Image. The collection departments are further divided into sixteen display areas. In 2004, the V&A alongside Royal Institute of British Architects opened the first permanent gallery in the UK covering the history of architecture with displays using models, photographs, elements from buildings and original drawings. With the opening of the new gallery, the RIBA Drawings and Archives Collection has been transferred to the museum, joining the already extensive collection held by the V&A. With over 600,000 drawings, over 750,000 papers and paraphernalia, and over 700,000 photographs from around the world, together they form the world's most comprehensive architectural resource. The V&As collection of Art from Asia numbers more than 160,000 objects, one of the largest in existence. It has one of the world's most comprehensive and important collections of Chinese art whilst the collection of South Asian Art is the most important in the West. The museums coverage includes items from South and South East Asia, Himalayan Kingdoms, China, the Far East and the Islamic world. The museum houses the National Art Library, containing over 750,000 books, photographs, drawings, paintings, and prints. It is one of the world's largest libraries dedicated to the study of fine and decorative arts. The library covers all areas and periods of the museum's collections with special collections covering illuminated manuscripts, rare books and artists' letters and archives. One of the great treasures in the library is the Codex Forster, some of Leonardo da Vinci's note books. The Codex consists of three parchment-bound manuscripts, Forster I, Forster II, and Forster III, quite small in size, dated between 1490 and 1505. One of the most dramatic parts of the museum is the Cast Courts in the sculpture wing, comprising two large, skylighted rooms two storeys high housing hundreds of plaster casts of sculptures, friezes and tombs. One of these is dominated by a full-scale replica of Trajan's Column, cut in half in order to fit under the ceiling. The other includes reproductions of various works of Italian Renaissance sculpture and architecture, including a full-size replica of Michelangelo's David. There is the largest and most comprehensive ceramics and glass collection in the world, with over 80,000 objects from around the world. Every populated continent is represented. Well represented in the collection is Meissen porcelain, from the first factory in Europe to discover the Chinese method of making porcelain. Among the finest examples are the Meissen Vulture from 1731 and the Möllendorff Dinner Service, designed in 1762 by Frederick II the Great. Ceramics from the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres are extensive, especially the from 18th and 19th centuries. The collection of 18th-century British porcelain is the largest and finest in the world. Examples from every factory are represented, the collections of Chelsea porcelain and Worcester Porcelain being especially fine.
The costume collection is the most comprehensive in Britain, containing over 14,000 outfits plus accessories, mainly dating from 1600 to the present. Costume sketches, design notebooks, and other works on paper are typically held by the Word and Image department. Because everyday clothing from previous eras has not generally survived, the collection is dominated by fashionable clothes made for special occasions. One of the first significant gifts of costume came in 1913 when the V&A received the Talbot Hughes collection containing 1,442 costumes and items as a gift from Harrods following its display at the nearby department store. Some of the oldest items in the collection are medieval vestments, especially Opus Anglicanum. One of the most important items in the collection is the wedding suit of James II of England, which is displayed in the British Galleries. In November 2012, the Museum opened its first gallery to be exclusively dedicated to furniture. Prior to this date furniture had been exhibited as part of a greater period context, rather than in isolation to showcase its design and construction merits. The furniture collection, while covering Europe and America from the Middle Ages to the present, is predominantly British, dating between 1700 and 1900. Many of the finest examples are displayed in the British Galleries, including pieces by Chippendale, Adam, Morris, and Mackintosh. One of the oldest items is a chair leg from Middle Egypt dated to 200-395AD. The Furniture and Woodwork collection also includes complete rooms, musical instruments, and clocks. Among the rooms owned by the Museum are the Boudoir of Madame de Sévilly (Paris, 1781–82) by Claude Nicolas Ledoux, with painted panelling by Jean Simeon Rousseau de la Rottiere; and Frank Lloyd Wright's Kaufmann Office, designed and constructed between 1934 and 1937 for the owner of a Pittsburgh department store. The jewellery collection, containing over 6000 items is one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of jewellery in the world and includes works dating from Ancient Egypt to the present day, as well as jewellery designs on paper. The museum owns pieces by renowned jewelers Cartier, Jean Schlumberger, Peter Carl Fabergé, Hemmerle and Lalique. Other items in the collection include diamond dress ornaments made for Catherine the Great, bracelet clasps once belonging to Marie Antoinette, and the Beauharnais emerald necklace presented by Napoleon to his adopted daughter Hortense de Beauharnais in 1806. This collection of more than 45,000 items covers decorative ironwork, both wrought and cast, bronze, silverware, arms and armour, pewter, brassware and enamels (including many examples from Limoges). One of the rarest items in the collection is the 58 cm high Gloucester Candlestick, dated to c1110, made from gilt bronze; with highly elaborate and intricate intertwining branches containing small figures and inscriptions, it is a tour de force of bronze casting. Also of importance is the Becket Casket dated c1180 to contain relics of St Thomas Becket, made from gilt copper, with enamelled scenes of the saint's martyrdom.
Musical instruments are classified as furniture by the museum, although Asian instruments are held by their relevant departments. Among the more important instruments owned by the museum are a violin by Antonio Stradivari dated 1699, an oboe that belonged to Gioachino Rossini, and a jewelled spinet dated 1571 made by Annibale Rossi. The collection also includes a c. 1570 virginal said to have belonged to Elizabeth I, and late 19th-century pianos designed by Edward Burne-Jones, and Baillie Scott. The collection of textiles consists of more than 53,000 examples, mainly western European though all populated continents are represented, dating from the 1st century AD to the present, this is the largest such collection in the world. Techniques represented include weaving, printing, quilting embroidery, lace, tapestry and carpets. These are classified by technique, countries of origin and date of production. The collections are well represented in these areas: early silks from the Near East, lace, European tapestries and English medieval church embroidery. The tapestry collection includes a fragment of the Cloth of St Gereon, the oldest known surviving European tapestry. A highlight of the collection is the four Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, very rare 15th-century tapestries, woven in the Netherlands, depicting the hunting of various animals; not just their age but their size make these unique. There are also extensive galleries of Print, Photography and Sculpture. There are a host of facilities for people with visual impairment. Facilities for the physically disabled. There are Touch Tours for the visually impaired.
Location : Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, London SW7 2RL.
Opening Times: Monday to Sunday 10:00 to 17:45.
Friday until 22:00.
Tickets : Free.
Tel: 020 7942 2000