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'Better it is to Get Wisdom than Gold'


Original doors of the V&A

Original Front Doors of the V&A


'Better is to Get Wisdom than Gold' inscription on the door of the V&A

Prince Albert's vision created one of the most succcessful cultural quarters in the world. He also reinforced the British belief that Museums were places of self-education and should be free to the public.

Albertopolis or South Kensington as it is hnow know is or was home to:

  • V&A
  • Natural History Museum
  • Geology Museum
  • Science Museum
  • Royal College of Sciences
  • Royal College of Art
  • Royal School of Mines
  • Royal School of Music
  • Royal College of Organists
  • Royal College of Needle work
  • Royal Horticulatural Gardens
  • Geographic Society
  • National Sound Archive
  • Royal Albert Hall

aerial view of the natural history museum

Aerial view of the Natural History Musem


Prince Albert and the Museums of South Kensington

South Kensington is home to an amazing array of institutions - the V&A, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, The Royal College of Art, Imperial College, the Royal College of Music, the Royal College of Organists, the Albert Hall, the Royal Geographical Society and the National Sound Archive. Their origins are to be found in the Great Exhibition of 1851 when Prince Albert set up a Museum of Manufactures to house the best objects purchased from the Exhibition. The Exhibition hosted 6m visitors in 5 months and made a profit of 180,000. The money was invested in the purchase of the land to the south of the Festival site in Hyde Park. The Commissioners of the Great Exhibition are still sitting today and have made possible one of the greatest concentrations of arts and science institutions in the world.

The area was once nicknamed Albertopolis and Albert insisted that projects using the land should be useful to the public and provide educational access to the masses. The idea of the new museum was entirely practical - its theme was the 'application of Fine Art to Manufactures'. The first director was Henry Cole, a small ball of energy, who was followed around the Museum by his yapping dog (The dog was buried in what is now the Pirelli Garden in the centre of the Museum). The original buildings were the 'Brompton Boilers' an immense structure of corrugated iron and steel which Prince Albert suggested should be painted with Green and White stripes in order to lighten up the oppressive buildings. The 'boilers' are alive and well and form the Bethnal Green But the link between art and science weakened over the years, the museum became known as the Museum of Ornamental Art, the South Kensington Museum, and then the Victoria and Albert Museum. Recently, the flamboyant director, Sir Roy Strong, added a subtitle 'The National Museum of Decorative Art and Design', to try to establish its purpose to the public and to restore the link between art and science.

When you arrive at the Museum go straight to the Pirelli Gardens and look at the buildings around the square which show the original South Kensington style. The four sides of the square were built at different times by Fowke and Scott. The original entrance is through the beautiful door at the far side whose panels symbolize the link between the arts and sciences. The designs on the walls are by Sykes, Gamble and Townroe. The three horizontal divisions represent the Ages of Man. On the pediment is Queen Victoria distributing Laurel crowns in front of the Crystal Palace.

Next find your way to the Cast Courts Rooms. Room 46A has been restored to the sumptuous Victorian interior decoration, and its plaster casts of such huge monuments as Trajan's Column and the porch of the Cathedral of Santiago Del Compostello must be seen to be believed. These casts illustrate the amazing energy of the Victorians. Next, find the Ceramic Staircase (room 11) where you will find more original Victorian designs, and a portrait of Sir Henry Cole. Back down the stairs, through the Italian renaissance gallery (looking at a few Donatello's as you go) (rooms 13 and 15) enter the Morris, Gamble and Poynter Rooms. This was at the old front entrance and shows how the first Director commissioned architecture worthy of the contents of the Museum. The Green Dining Room is by Morris with paintings by Burne- Jones. The central refreshment room is now known as the Gamble Room, after its designer. The ecletric mix of Arabian, classical, renaissance and modern features was abhorred until recently, but now we can appreciate a truly stunning interior. Note the quotation around the top of the walls, and the mouthwatering quotations on the window. The Poynter room or Dutch Kitchen includes the grill, in which chops and steaks were cooked, note the attractive representations of the seasons around the walls.

Finally, walk via Rooms 11, 12, and Tippoo's Tiger.


Lecture by Kevin Flude - prepared for 'Creative Practice in Narrative Environments'

MA course at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design & developed for University College Worcester

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