Building the Museum

Since its inception, the V&A's buildings were intended to exemplify the best of contemporary architecture and design. They were to be a work of art in themselves, reinforcing the Museum's mission to educate and inspire its visitors. This philosophy has endured to create the richly varied set of buildings we see today. Each one now represents both a chapter of the V&A's story and a moment in British design history.

The Victoria and Albert Museum was founded with a mission: to educate designers, manufacturers and the public in art and design. Its origins lie in the Great Exhibition of 1851 – the world's first international display of design and manufacturing. Following the Exhibition, its creator and champion, Prince Albert, saw the need to maintain and improve the standards of British industry to compete in the international marketplace. To this end, he urged that the profits of the Exhibition be used to develop a cultural district of museums and colleges in South Kensington devoted to art and science education. The Museum was the first of these institutions. It was founded in 1852 and moved to its current home on Exhibition Road in 1857. For over 40 years it was known as the South Kensington Museum, but it was renamed after Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, commemorating his role in its establishment.

The Great Exhibition

In 1851, Londoners were treated to a spectacle of industry and progress. The Great Exhibition, the first ever international exhibition of its kind, was a magnificent display of manufactured products – from steam engines to myriad exotic goods from Britain and its empire and beyond. A temporary 'Crystal Palace' was built in Hyde Park to house the displays and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert presided over the grand opening ceremony. When it closed, six million people – the equivalent of one-third of the British population – were estimated to have visited the exhibition, including Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens.

Aeronautic view of The Palace of Industry For All Nations (Crystal Palace), from Kensington Palace, print by Charles Burton, 1851, England. Museum no. 19614. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the brains behind the Great Exhibition was a young civil servant named Henry Cole. He had visited similar national displays in Paris and persuaded Prince Albert that an international exhibition in London would educate the public and inspire British designers and manufacturers. At the end of the hugely successful Exhibition, a selection of objects was purchased, using a Treasury grant of £5,000, to form the core of a new Museum of Manufactures, which opened its doors in 1852. This was to be the first incarnation of the V&A. Its Director was none other than Henry Cole.

Sir Henry Cole, unknown photographer, about 1858 – 1873. Museum no. E.207-2005. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Good design and the 'Chamber of Horrors'

The Museum of Manufactures was located in Marlborough House, a royal residence in Pall Mall, London, which was made available by Prince Albert. Cole was also given charge of another institution devoted to design education, the Government School of Design, founded in 1837 at Somerset House, and this too was moved to Marlborough House in 1852. A collection of plaster casts and ornamental art works, which had been assembled for teaching purposes by the School, was added to the new Museum of Manufactures.

As Director, Henry Cole declared that the Museum should be a "schoolroom for everyone". The Museum's founding principles, therefore, were to instruct the public on all matters relating to good design. And what better way, Cole felt, to demonstrate 'correct' design and good taste than to provide a display of all that should be seen as its antithesis? Alongside displays of outstanding furniture, ceramics, textiles, glass and metalwork that would, he hoped, create public demand for "improvements in the character of our national manufactures", visitors were also presented with a Gallery of False Principles.

The First Room at Marlborough House, William Linnaeus Cassey, 1856. Museum no. 7279. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Dubbed by the press as a 'Chamber of Horrors', this display of 'bad' design assaulted visitors with a range of what were considered 'utterly indefensible' everyday decorative objects that didn't meet the standards of design that were being formulated and promoted by Cole and his fellow design reformers. Fabrics and wallpapers with naturalistic images of foliage and flowers were particularly frowned on, as were over-elaborate objects with excessive ornamentation and any objects in which the choice of materials or ornament seemed illogical. The failings of these exhibits were spelled out in the gallery labels, and they were displayed alongside comparative objects which were judged successful and correct.

Every article selected for the exhibition, however unprincipled its design might have been, was at least commercially very successful. The public were merely amused by the selection but remained unconverted. The manufacturers whose products were criticised were mortified and immediately complained. The exhibition was closed after only two weeks.

Of the 87 objects originally shown in the False Principles Gallery, only 17 have been identified so far in our collections. One of the problems was that none of the objects seem to have been given a museum number when they moved from Marlborough House to South Kensington – almost was if they didn't deserve to be in the collection proper.

The new 'South Kensington Museum'

By 1854, the Museum of Manufactures was already outgrowing its home at Marlborough house, which would soon need to be vacated to provide a residence for the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). Henry Cole approached Prince Albert to discuss the provision of a permanent museum in the new cultural quarter that the Prince was attempting to develop, close to the site of the Crystal Palace. An estate of 86 acres had been purchased for this purpose by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, of which the Prince was President, using the profits of the Great Exhibition. It was in the neighbourhood of Brompton, which was soon given, at Cole's suggestion, the more aristocratic-sounding name of South Kensington. It also acquired the less formal nickname of 'Albertopolis'. Here, the Prince hoped to bring together exhibitions, schools and learned institutions. The south-east corner of the estate was occupied by a large, dilapidated house, Brompton Park House and its gardens, and this was the area earmarked for the new permanent Museum.

South End of the Iron Museum (the 'Brompton Boilers'), South Kensington, A. Lanchenick, about 1860. Museum no. 2816 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Funds were short, though, and the first building erected for the new Museum in 1856-7 was a temporary iron structure, 81 metres long and nine metres high – large enough to house three two-storey galleries. Reaction to the new building was negative: "Its ugliness is unmitigated", stated The Builder, the leading architectural journal of the day. The journal's claim that it looked "like a threefold monster boiler" gave the Museum its popular moniker, the 'Brompton Boilers'.

Exterior view of the roof of the South Kensington Museum (the 'Brompton Boilers') under construction, Royal Engineers, 1856. Museum no. 34966 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Even before the 'Iron Museum' was completed, it became clear that it could not provide sufficient space for all the collections and anticipated visitors. A military engineer, Captain Francis Fowke, a man who Cole described as "possessing a fertility of invention which amounted to genius", was brought on to supervise the further additions to the Museum. A new structure, known as the Sheepshanks Gallery, was created to house a collection of paintings offered to the nation by a wealthy manufacturer from Leeds. It extended northwards from the 'Boilers'. The two buildings were completed and ready for their official opening as 'The South Kensington Museum' in June 1857.

The Sheepshanks gallery featured a number of innovations, including gas lighting that allowed it to remain open into the evening in winter. This made it easier for the working man to see edifying works of art, a fact that Cole praised.

The evening opening of public museums may furnish a powerful antidote to the gin palace

Sir Henry Cole

Galleries were then added north and east of the Sheepshanks, initially to act as an overflow space for displaying the National Gallery's pictures, and then to house The South Kensington Museum's own rapidly expanding art collection.

Exterior view of the Sheepshanks Gallery, west side, about 1872. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In order to provide space as quickly and economically as possible, and to house the largest works of art, Fowke then proposed that the quadrangle around which the paintings galleries were grouped should simply be roofed over. He divided the area into two separate courts. The North Court, which opened in April 1862, had a self-supporting iron and glass roof designed to maximise the light into the display area. Other innovative design features included an elaborate light-controlling blind system, a combined heating and ventilation system sunk in underfloor passages, and air-cleansing screens.

The North Court in the late 19th century. Museum no. E.1101-1989. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The South Court of the South Kensington Museum, about 1886. Museum no. E.1103-1989. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The South Court was intended to house smaller items and its space was divided in two by an arcaded corridor. Opened in June 1862, this court included a series of niches running around the upper arcade level, in which were placed 35 mosaic portraits of European artists ranging from painters to sculptors and architects, an affirmation of the equal status accorded to the applied and fine arts at the South Kensington Museum. It was known as the 'Kensington Valhalla', named after the resting place of heroes in Norse mythology.

A Bird's Eye View of South Kensington Museum, from Clarke's Handbook, 1862. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Even before the North and South Courts had been roofed in, Fowke had worked out the details of an ambitious master plan for the Brompton Park House site. Going against the contemporary fashion for Gothic architecture, he proposed to continue the North Italian Renaissance style chosen for the Sheepshanks Gallery across all new buildings. In this scheme the greater part of the Museum was of two storeys, with a grand Lecture Theatre complex forming its centrepiece.

Lecture theatre sketch for the north side of the inner quadrangle, Captain Francis Fowke, 1860 – 66. Museum no. E.1318-1927. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A flurry of new construction ensued, including residences for senior members of the Museum's administration, new art and science schools, a lecture theatre and refreshment rooms, the first of their kind in the world. Hungry visitors who found themselves far from the provisions of the city could secure a hot meal, another unique draw for museum-goers.

Exhibition of the Photographic Society of London held in the Refreshment Rooms at the South Kensington Museum, Charles Thurston Thompson, 1858. Museum no. MA/32/365. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Fowke did not work alone on this massive scheme. Alongside the engineers and architects who assisted in his studio, there was a separate studio of decorative designers, headed by Godfrey Sykes. This team designed sculpture, ironwork, tiling, mosaic and frescos to enrich the buildings. Well known artists and designers from outside the Museum were also invited to contribute to the decorative schemes, including Owen Jones, William Morris, Edward Poynter, Frederic Leighton and others.

Henry Cole, Francis Fowke, Godfrey Sykes and John Liddell in front of the residences range, Charles Thurston Thompson, about 1863. Museum no. E.1086-1989. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Both Fowke and Sykes died relatively young, but their studios and this idiosyncratic method of building continued into the 1880s. After a hiatus in the building work, however, an architectural competition was held to select a new architect, a professional this time, to complete the Museum. Aston Webb, a relatively young architect who had just been chosen to redesign the Birmingham Law Courts (and who would later design the façade of Buckingham Palace), was selected to bring coherence to a site full of awkward gaps and decaying houses left over from the Brompton Park era. His remit was to create a magnificent frontage in "red brickwork with stone dressings, red brickwork with terracotta dressings, or stone only", for what was fast becoming one of the capital's most prestigious locations.

Webb's plan called for long galleries extending along Cromwell Road, punctuated by a three-storey octagon surmounted by a small cupola, and on the west, a large square court (eventually octagonal) balanced by the Architectural Courts on the east.

Opening the new building

In May 1899, in what was to be her last public ceremony, Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for Aston Webb's new scheme. The occasion also marked the changing of the Museum's name to the Victoria and Albert Museum (the queen had advocated The Albert Museum, but changed her mind at the request of the Duke of Devonshire).

Official programme for the laying of the foundation stone of the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1899. Museum no. E.1458-1984 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As the building neared completion, a Committee of Re-arrangement looked at the question of how all the empty new galleries and courts should be filled. It was a chance to restate the Museum's purpose, which over the years had become increasingly uncertain. The Committee concluded that its chief aim should again be the improvement of the artistic quality of British design and production. It therefore decreed that the whole collection should be displayed by material (all the wood, together, all the textiles, all the ceramics etc.) in a huge three-dimensional encyclopedia of materials and techniques. One of the last things to be completed was the inscription round the main door arch, which was adapted from Sir Joshua Reynolds: "The excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose". The Museum was finally finished on 26 June 1909, more than 50 years after work had started on the original structures.

During the 20th century, little room was left for constructing new buildings, so the Museum tackled its perennial problem of lack of space by cutting into the existing spaces. Buildings were converted and new stories added, especially to the Courts, where high ceilings allowed for such adjustments.

West Central Court as newly laid out, 1909. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The elaborate decorations of the Victorian buildings fell out of favour and many were covered over or obliterated, to create plainer, more neutral spaces for display. But in the last decades of the 20th century, the priority was the repair of the existing fabric. Many of the early buildings had been built rather too hastily and were beginning to show their age. Today, an ambitious programme known as FuturePlan has made enormous progress in restoring the original galleries to their former glory. So far, more than 85 percent of the Museum's public spaces have been transformed, improving access and allowing the collections to be more elegantly and intelligently displayed. By championing the best contemporary designers, such as Kim Wilkie, Eva Jiricna and Amanda Levete Architects, FuturePlan is ensuring that the V&A remains one of the finest and most forward-thinking museums in the world.

Audio descriptions of historic locations in the Museum are available for blind and partially sighted visitors to listen to online at home or during a visit to the V&A.