The Victoria and Albert is essentially a museum of the applied arts, but its collections are an illuminating resource for anyone concerned with the industrial history of Europe. It was founded, as the South Kensington Museum, in the year after the Great Exhibition of 1851 with a mission to improve the quality of the industrial arts – designs and manufactured objects – in Britain, by placing the finest historical and contemporary examples before the public. Its first director was Sir Henry Cole (1808-82) one of the organisers of the Great Exhibition. The first building on the present site was opened in 1856, and the museum became the first to provide a restaurant for its visitors the following year. In 1858 gas lighting enabled evening openings, giving access for working people.
The museum has more than 150 galleries, which include that displaying the cartoons designed by Raphael (1483-1520) for the tapestries commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 for the Sistine Chapel, the castings courts filled with plaster copies of works of art and architecture that include Trajan’s Column, Michaelangelo’s David and the Portico de la Gloria from the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, and collections from Japan, Korea, China, India and the Islamic countries.
Exhibits of direct relevance to British industrial history include silk from Spitalfields, iron railings of 1710-14 from St Paul’s Cathedral, cast at Lamberhurst Furnace in the Weald, decorative biscuit tins shaped like locomotives, ocean liners and cameras, and ceramics from the principal designers and manufacturers of the Industrial Revolution period and after. The ceramics collection totals 75,000 artefacts. The glass collection includes many pieces made in Venice from the fifteenth century, as well as examples from the Industrial Revolution period. The large collection of decorative iron and steel includes cast-iron firebacks of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Flanders, many of them dated, superb wrought-iron work of the early modern period from Spain, Germany and Italy, and examples of the distinctive steel furniture, inlaid with gold and silver floral devices, made in the eighteenth century at Tula, 190 km south of Moscow, where Dutch craftsmen settled between 1625 and 1650.
The museum holds a large collection of architectural models and drawings. Models currently exhibited include the Sea and Ships Pavilion from 1951 Festival of Britain, by Sir Basil Spence (1907-76), Gatwick Airport of 1935-36 by Hoar, Marlow & Lovett and the Trellick Tower of 1968-72 by Erno Goldfinger (1902-87). The museum still displays objects from the Great Exhibition and subsequent international exhibitions, including the colossal bookcase in the Gothic style that appeared in the Crystal Palace amongst the exhibits from the Habsburg Empire in 1851. Museums of this kind place the artefacts produced by industry in Europe in the context of the material cultures of civilisations from all parts of the world and from every epoch of history.