A Brief History of the Museum

Flagon, George Fox, about 1851. Museum no. 2743-1851. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Flagon, George Fox, about 1851. Museum no. 2743-1851. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Victoria and Albert Museum's collections span two thousand years of art in virtually every medium, from many parts of the world, and visitors to the museum encounter a treasure house of amazing and beautiful objects. The story of the V&A's foundation helps to explain its astonishing richness and diversity.

The Museum was established in 1852, following the enormous success of the Great Exhibition the previous year. Its founding principle was to make works of art available to all, to educate working people and to inspire British designers and manufacturers. Profits from the Exhibition were used to establish the Museum of Manufactures, as it was initially known, and exhibits were purchased to form the basis of its collections.

The Museum moved to its present site in 1857 and was renamed the South Kensington Museum. Its collections expanded rapidly as it set out to acquire the best examples of metalwork, furniture, textiles and all other forms of decorative art from all periods. It also acquired fine art - paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture - in order to tell a more complete history of art and design.

Generous funding and a less competitive art market than today's meant that the young Museum was able to make many very important acquisitions. The Museum itself also grew, with new buildings being added as and when needed. Many of these buildings, with their iron frames and glass roofs, were intended to be semi-permanent exhibition halls, but they have all survived and are one of the finest groups of Victorian buildings in Britain.

In 1899, Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone of a new building designed to give the Museum a grand façade and main entrance. To mark the occasion, it was renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum, in memory of the enthusiastic support Prince Albert had given to its foundation.

Wall hanging, 1650-1700. Museum no. IS.168-1950.

Wall hanging, 1650-1700. Museum no. IS.168-1950. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Throughout the 20th century, the collections continued to grow. While expanding its historical collections, the V&A also maintained its acquisition of contemporary objects, starting with a collection of Art Nouveau furniture in 1900.

The Museum's ceramics, glass, textiles, dress, silver, ironwork, jewellery, furniture, sculpture, paintings, prints and photographs now span the cultures of Europe, North America, Asia and North Africa, and date from ancient times to the present day.

Although the V&A's collections are international in their scope, they contain many particularly important British works - especially British silver, ceramics, textiles and furniture.

The British collections enable the V&A to explain not just the history of design in the British Isles but also the broader sweep of their cultural history. The British Galleries are designed to give visitors from this country and from around the world a new insight into the history of Britain by bringing us closer to the thoughts and lives of key people in an influential culture.

The Victoria and Albert Museum also offers visitors the chance to experience at first hand the splendour of the arts of Asia. Britain's long association with India and South East Asia has given the V&A the opportunity to acquire magnificent works from the cultures of that region. Objects in all media are represented, including stone and bronze sculpture, furniture and woodwork, jewellery and metalwork and collections of Indian miniature painting and textiles which are among the most important in the world.

Visitors can also enjoy galleries devoted to the art of Japan, China, Korea and the Islamic world. The East Asian collections are among the best in Europe, with particular strengths in ceramics and metalwork, while the Islamic gallery displays some truly spectacular carpets.

'Tilted Flight', Vase, Hiramatsu Yasuki, 1994. 
Museum no. FE.12-1995.

'Tilted Flight', Vase, Hiramatsu Yasuki, 1994. Museum no. FE.12-1995. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The V&A also reflects the diverse nature of contemporary Asian cultures, collecting contemporary Asian art and design as diverse as Japanese studio crafts and Indian film posters.

Contemporary design has always been at the heart of the V&A's work and the Museum remains true to its founding mission of promoting excellence in design and manufacturing. It works hard to encourage contemporary designers, acquiring their work, and providing inspiration through its displays.

Many of Britain's most successful designers have used the V&A as a source of ideas and stimulation and visitors to the V&A have the opportunity to see their work alongside the historic collections which helped shape them.

Henry Cole, the V&A's first director, declared that the Museum should be a 'schoolroom for everyone'. The V&A today offers visitors the chance to explore more deeply by using its study rooms, guided tours, gallery activities, lectures and special events. Whether you want to enjoy the galleries independently, or get more closely involved, there are many ways to discover the delights of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Wolsey Angels Appeal

We urgently need your help to raise the £5,000,000 it will cost for the V&A to acquire four Renaissance angels cast for the tomb of Cardinal Wolsey and later in the possession of Henry VIII.

Help us buy The Wolsey Angels

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Pewter at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Hardback)

Pewter at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Hardback)

This comprehensive study, based on the extensive collection at the V&A, covers pewterware from a large number of countries, including Britain, Fra…

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Event - Posters, Politics, Protest: British Political Posters

Fri 10 October 2014 10:00

CONFERENCE: In the run-up to the General Election 2015, curators, campaigners and designers will explore the significance of the poster to British political debate.

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