Better known today as the Victoria and Albert Museum following its renaming in 1899, the South Kensington Museum was created in the aftermath of the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Initially located in Marlborough House on the Mall, it moved to its South Kensington site in 1857, opening to the public on 22nd June that year. Recorded among the visitors in the initial couple of years was Queen Victoria – who visited twice in February, 1858, and then again open 14th April when she was accompanied by Prince Albert.

The purpose of the later visit was to open the Art Rooms on the ground floor of Sheepshanks Gallery, a building which had been specifically constructed to house paintings given by John Sheepshanks (the building, located on the eastern side of the John Madejski Garden now contains sculptures on the ground floor and silver and stained glass on the first floor).

One interesting connection between the Queen and the museum can be found in a six metre tall plaster cast of Michelangelo’s David. The cast was given to Queen Victoria as a gift from the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1857 but she didn’t want the trouble of housing the giant figure (and she was apparently shocked by its nudity – more on that in a moment). So the Queen gave the statue to the museum where it was installed in a prominent position (and can today be seen in Room 46b).

But ah, yes, the nudity. The story goes that in response to the Queen’s shock, a proportionally accurate plaster fig leaf was commissioned to cover David‘s nether regions whenever the Queen visited (apparently by being hung on two small hooks on the cast). The fig leaf, like the statue, can still be seen – it’s housed in a small case on the back of the plinth David‘s standing on.

David is one of only a few items in the V&A’s collection today which once belonged to the Queen or Prince Albert. Others include the Raphael cartoons which she loaned to the museum in 1865 (and are still on loan from the current Queen).

As part of the redevelopment of the museum in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (when it was also renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum despite the Queen’s wishes it be called the Albert Museum), statues of the royal couple were installed above the museum’s main entrance in Cromwell Road with Prince Albert positioned just below the Queen who is flanked  by St George and St Michael (see above).

PICTURES: Courtesy V&A

WHERE: Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road (nearest Tube stations are South Kensington and Gloucester Road); WHEN: 10am to 5.45pm daily (Fridays to 10pm); COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.vam.ac.uk

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Tower_Bridge_1910_Alvin_Langdon_CoburnTower Bridge, here depicted in an image by Alvin Langdon Coburn, taken in about 1910. The image is one of more than 400,000 vintage prints, daguerreotypes and early colour photographs as well as other photography-related objects including the world’s first negative from the Science Museum Group’s 3,000,000 strong photography collection which is being transferred to the Victoria and Albert Museum under an agreement between the two institutions. The images are joining the V&A’s existing collection of 500,000 photographs to create an International Photography Resource Centre, providing the public with a “world class” facility to access what will be the single largest collection on the art of photography on the planet. It’s a reunion for some of the images which were once part of a single collection housed at the South Kensington Museum in the 19th century before it divided into the V&A and the Science Museum. For more on the museums, see www.vam.ac.uk and www.sciencemuseum.ac.ukPICTURE: © Royal Photographic Society/National Media Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

 

Located in the South Kensington estate – known to some during the Victorian era as Albertopolis (see previous entry in this series) – each of the two museums mentioned here represents an architectural and cultural feat in its own right, for the sake of space (and to allow us to explore a wider range of buildings as part of this series) we’re grouping them together…

V&A2• Victoria and Albert Museum: Following on from the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the V&A as it’s popularly known, was established in 1852 and funded by the profits from the exhibition.

Initially known as the Museum of Manufactures, it was founded with the three aims of making art accessible, educating people and inspiring British designers and manufacturers.

Renamed the South Kensington Museum after moving to its current site in 1857, its collections – which now include everything from metalwork, furniture and textiles to fine art such as paintings, drawings and sculptures from a range of contemporary and historical periods – continued to expand.

Located in what were only meant to be temporary exhibition buildings – factory-like structures which become known as the ‘Brompton Boilers’, in 1899 Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for the grand new facade and entrance that we see today (it was at this point that that the museum took on its current name).

The Science Museum – the third major museum of Albertopolis – initially formed part of this museum and only gained its independent status in 1909.

WHERE: Victoria and Albert Museum (nearest Tube stations are South Kensington and Knightsbridge); WHEN: 10am to 5.45pm daily (late opening Fridays); COST: Free (apart from special exhibitions); WEBSITE: www.vam.ac.uk.

 

NHM Natural History Museum: Created to house what was previously the natural history collection of the British Museum (itself founded out of the collections of Sir Hans Sloane), the museum was founded thanks largely to the efforts of Sir Richard Owen.

The superintendent of the natural history department at the British Museum and later the founder of the NHM, it was he led the campaign for a separate premises for the museum’s natural history collections which had outgrown the museum’s home in Bloomsbury.

It first opened its doors on Easter Monday, 1881, but the museum legally remained part of the British Museum until 1963 and continued to be known as British Museum (Natural History) until 1992.

Known as the Waterhouse Building (after Alfred Waterhouse, the young architect who designed it following the death of the original designer, engineer Captain Francis Fowke, who was also involved in the initial design of Royal Albert Hall), the museum’s main structure – faced in terracotta – is said to be one of the finest examples of a Romanesque structure in Britain.

The premises and collections of the Geological Museum – now the ‘red zone’ of the NHM –  merged with the Natural History Museum in 1985.

WHERE: Natural History Museum (nearest Tube stations are South Kensington and Knightsbridge); WHEN: 10am to 5.50pm daily; COST: Free (apart from special exhibitions); WEBSITE: www.nhm.ac.uk.