The Victoria and Albert Museum London has its origins in the Great Exhibition of 1851. Involved in the planning of the museum was the first director, Henry Cole.


Known initially as the Museum of Manufactures, it first opened in May 1852 at Marlborough House. It had been transferred by September, to Somerset House. At this stage the collections covered both applied art and science. The nucleus of the collection was formed by several of the exhibits purchased from the Great Exhibition. The Victoria and Albert Museum London has continued to be an attraction ever since.

By February 1854 it started to transfer to the current site and it was renamed South Kensington Museum. The site was occupied by Brompton Park House. In 1855 the German architect Gottfried Semper, at the request of Cole, produced a design for the museum. The Board of Trade rejected it because it was too expensive. The refreshment rooms opened in 1857. The museum was the first in the world to provide such a facility.

The official opening by Queen Victoria was on 20 June 1857. Late night openings arrived in the following year. Gas lighting made this possible. It enabled, in the words of Cole, “to ascertain practically what hours are most convenient to the working classes”. The collections of both applied art and science as educational resources looked to help boost productive industry.

Practical Use

In these early years the emphasis was on the practical use of the collection. This set it apart from that of “High Art” at the National Gallery and scholarship at the British Museum.

George Wallis (1811–1891), the first Keeper of Fine Art Collection, passionately promoted the idea of wide art education through the museum collections. This led to the transfer to the museum of the School of Design that had been founded in 1837 at Somerset House. Subsequently, after the transfer, it was referred to as the Art School or Art Training School. Later to become the Royal College of Art which finally achieved full independence in 1949.

From the 1860s to the 1880s, improvised galleries to the west of Exhibition Road, had acquired the scientific collections. In 1893 the “Science Museum” effectively came into existence when a separate director was appointed.

Aston Webb Building

The laying of the foundation stone of the Aston Webb building (to the left of the main entrance) on 17 May 1899 was the last official public appearance by Queen Victoria. An announcement of change of name was made during the ceremony. No longer the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum . Queen Victoria’s address during the ceremony, as recorded in The London Gazette, ended: “I trust that it will remain for ages a Monument of discerning Liberality and a Source of Refinement and Progress.”


The opening ceremony for the Aston Webb building by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra took place on 26 June 1909. It has had a varied and interesting history in itself.

In 1939, on the outbreak of World War II, most of the collection was sent to a quarry in Wiltshire, to Montacute House in Somerset, or to a tunnel near Aldwych tube station. Larger items remained in situ, sand-bagged and bricked in. Between 1941 and 1944 some galleries became a school for children evacuated from Gibraltar. The South Court became a canteen, first for the Royal Air Force and later for Bomb Damage Repair Squads.

The ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition, held between September and November 1946, attracted nearly a million and a half visitors. This was organised by the Council of Industrial Design. Established by the British government in 1944 “to promote by all practicable means the improvement of design in the products of British industry”. The success of this exhibition led to the planning of the Festival of Britain in 1951. The return of most of the collections completed by 1948.


In July 1973, as part of its outreach programme to young people. The V&A became the first museum in Britain to present a rock concert. The V&A presented a combined concert/lecture by British progressive folk-rock band Gryphon. Gryphon explored the lineage of medieval music and instrumentation and related how those contributed to contemporary music 500 years later. This innovative approach to bringing young people to museums was a hallmark of the directorship of Roy Strong. Subsequently emulated by some other British museums.

National Museum of Art and Design

In the 1980s, Sir Roy Strong renamed the museum as “The Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Museum of Art and Design”.

The centennial of the 1899 renaming arrived and an exhibition celebrated it. Called “A Grand Design”, it first toured in North America from 1997. It took in Baltimore Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. And returned to London in 1999. To accompany and support the exhibition, the museum published a book, Grand Design. The book is available for reading online on its website.

Since 2001 the museum has embarked on a major £150m renovation programme. In 2001 “FuturePlan” launched. This involved redesigning all the galleries and public facilities in the museum that have yet to be remodelled. The redesign ensured better displayed exhibits, more information is available and the museum meets modern expectations.

In March 2018, the Duchess of Cambridge became the first royal patron of the Victoria and Albert Museum London.

To visit the Victoria and Albert Museum in London contact Holt Services