Great collections... The origins of London's Victoria and Albert Museum


Today, the V&A is the world's largest museum of decorative arts and design, with a vast permanent collection of more than 4.5 million objects.

Also impressive are the museum's origins, which can be dated back to the generation which did more than any other to establish the hobby of collecting: the Victorians.

In those days, collecting was lowly regarded in many quarters - that it was "the mark of a man who had failed in other ways" was a common put-down.

Even a great mind like Charles Dickens had his reservations. The Great Expectations author once remarked that collectors "seem to crouch in odd corners… and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust."

The V&A's first-ever director,
the visionary Henry Cole

Yet Dickens was actually wrong - or at least wrong in tarring all collectors with the same brush.

In fact, the motives of many of the Victorian era's greatest collectors were the exact opposite of wishing "to hiding their musty treasures from the public eye"...

Which brings us to the South Kensington Museum - formerly the Museum of Manufactures and later the V&A - and the much acknowledged efforts of its first director, Henry Cole, and his less-acknowledged 'number two' John Charles Robinson.

Cole was a bona fide innovator, affecting a number of changes in commerce and education in 19th century Britain. (Incidentally, he also pioneered the sending of greetings cards at Christmas.)

While Cole devoted himself to establishing the museum as an educational institution, Robinson was truly a collector's collector, gallivanting around Europe with a particular eye for medieval and Renaissance objects d'art.

Robinson's love of beautiful objects was matched by his willingness to buy. According to author Jacqueline Yallop's excellent book Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World, he snapped up 1,400 objects in 1854 alone.

Indeed, his efforts formed the backbone of the South Kensington Museum's collection. Back then, Cole focussed the collection specifically on applied art and sciences. "High art" was nowhere to be found in the collections until George Wallis, the museum's first Keeper of Fine Art Collection, passionately promoted the idea.

Meanwhile, Cole was intent on attracting the masses to his "odd corners" (to paraphrase Dickens), going so far as to use gas lighting for late night openings. This, said Cole, would "ascertain practically what hours are most convenient to the working classes."

Cole believed that exposing the public to these exhibits could both promote and encourage advances in industry - evidence that his faith in the redeeming and improving power of education of the working classes echoed ideas shared by Dickens.

Among the innovative animal products displayed in the museum was this miniature basket, shell and ormolu

Especially important was an early South Kensington Museum collection formed with ideas best described in an 1885 pamphlet by Thomas Laurie, a manufacturer of museum cases. Laurie's report was entitled Suggestions for Establishing Cheap, Popular and Educational Museums of Scientific and Art Collections.

"Cheap" is perhaps the title's most important word here. Thriftiness was key in establishing a collection that could a) be affordably run and b) would appeal to the public in an era when attitudes to industry were ambivalent, and many considered the working classes to be a liability or problem.

Cole's solution was a "Collection illustrating the utilisation of waste products" and another of animal products. In other words, the collection offered a pioneering look at industry and recycling in Victorian England. The collection comprised a blend of curiosities, as both a classroom and a showcase for the era's industry.

Illustrating the collection were examples of materials derived from animal and vegetable origins, and from sewage and mineral waste. Key expos included a display of the values and uses of a dead horse, including charts of the horse's components.

An illustration of the museum's Victorian-era Animal Products section, which apparently proved popoula with the era's working classes

So, while John Charles Robinson established his collecting legacy by hunting worldwide objects of beauty, visitors to the museum's other collections could view decorative items from other cultures alongside examples of the latest applications in Victorian industry.

In particular, the "waste product" exhibitions were laid out in frames, glass cases and substances in jars, all perhaps deemed appropriate for a working class audience.

Over time, new world-changing substances in the exhibition like aniline dye and artificial fertilisers began to look out-of-date, as the museum increasingly turned its focus to paintings, sculpture and other artefacts - setting a blueprint which the V&A's exhibitions follow to this day.

As a result, the "Collection illustrating the utilisation of waste products" gradually fizzled out.

Nevertheless, thanks to the collecting efforts of Cole and Roberts, and Cole's idea to align the museum with the Victorian era's industrial genius, the museum crucially helped to establish Victorian collectors as being, in Yallop's words, "as much an expression of the age as cotton mills or railways."


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