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  • The Victoria and Albert Museum: Rethinking the Context
  • Bruce Robertson (bio)

It is useful to remember that the Victoria and Albert Museum did not receive its current name until 1899; before then it was the South Kensington Museum (or Museums). When it opened, it was effectively a condensation of the Great Exhibition’s compendium of Art and Industry: the collection included the Museum of Ornamental Art and the Sheepshanks Gallery but also the Patent Museum, the Museum of Animal Products, the Food Collection, the Museum of Construction, the Educational Museum, the Economic Museum, and a few other odds and ends; a few years later, ship models, paintings and oils by J. M. W. Turner, and an active fish hatchery were added. The purpose of this collection of collections was to educate, with two audiences in mind: the general public and students in the schools affiliated with the museum, beginning with the School of Design. The museum was a classroom, not only for those formally enrolled in courses but also for self-education. The museum was also effectively a workshop and laboratory (where different design and building techniques could be developed), as well as a gift shop and the first museum café. By 1899, the museum had largely become a museum of decorative arts but still retained elements of its heterogenous past at its Bethnal Green outpost (fig. 1).

It is also useful to know that the person responsible for the name change from South Kensington to Victoria and Albert was Lyon Playfair, a member of Prince Albert’s circle from 1850 and the museum’s cofounder, with Henry Cole, as one of the two secretaries of the Science and Art Department, the institution that housed the museum and its affiliated schools.

In histories of the V&A, Playfair’s name is seldom mentioned; his departure from the department in 1858, one year after the museum opened its doors in South Kensington, has been taken to indicate that his tenure was a [End Page 41]

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Fig. 1.

Sketch-layout of the 1851 Commissioners’ Estate suggested by Prince Albert in 1853. A, National Gallery; B, C, Colleges of Art and Science; D, E, Museums of Industrial Art, Patented Inventions, Trade Museums, etc.; F, G, H, private houses, official residences, or other institutions; I, possible site of hall for Academy of Music; K, possible site of Learned Societies; L, Hall of Glory; K, Approximate site of the current V&A. From Survey of London, vol. 38, The Museums Area of South Kensington and Westminster (1975).

failure.1 In fact, as one of the commissioners of the exhibition of 1851, and as the long-time representative of the Scottish universities to Parliament, among his many other governmental and royal duties, he remained vitally interested in the functions of the museum and its success; in 1885, the museum reported directly to him, as vice-president of the Privy Council. But the erasure of Playfair’s role is indicative of a larger amnesia, one that discounts the fundamental fact that the museum was conceived as a function of the Science and Art Department and given the task of putting into [End Page 42] concrete action the department’s goals to improve and spread technical education throughout Britain. The V&A was primarily an institution for the production and transmission of knowledge across the disciplines. This purpose was shared by the first civic museums in the United States, almost all of them created in alliance with schools: New York’s Metropolitan Museum had a school; Boston’s and Chicago’s still do.

The goal of technical education is a prism through which the creation and programs of museums in Victorian Britain, and then throughout the colonies and much of the Western world, needs to be seen. Museums were emphatically conceived of as part of the great reform of education that was set in train in Britain with the election of the Reform Parliament in 1830, an approach mirrored by similar developments throughout Europe and the United States. In Britain, the Museum Act of 1845, followed by legislation in 1850 and 1855, created public libraries and parks in addition to...


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