How Did the Victoria and Albert Museum Come About?
The site of the Victoria and Albert Museum was purchased largely through the proceeds from the Great Exhibition of 1851. This was the first international exhibition of its time, though certainly not the last. Many of the wonderful items showcased at these exhibitions held all over Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries. They eventually found a home at this museum and are still on display today.
When walking through the exhibit halls, I felt like I was on a scavenger hunt. I enjoyed looking for these pieces of history which were seen by millions of people during the course of exhibition and are still breathtakingly beautiful to behold more than 160 years later. One of the appeals for me about Steampunk and the era that gave rise to the aesthetic is the emphasis on craftsmanship. And there is no shortage of that at the V&A. Here are two of the most impressive pieces that I encountered during my visit.
This “cathedral in wood” was a gift from the Austrian Emperor, Franz Ferdinand, to Queen Victoria. According to the museum label, its decoration reflected the debate about the unification of all German-speaking peoples under one rule. The bookcase had to be at least 20 feet tall, which means it just might hold the entire literary collection of one Steampunk fan. In the center there is a Belgian altarpiece on display. It looked like it had been carved out of the most delicious dark chocolate, but it was also made of wood. These two pieces were not originally shown together, but they both made cameos at the Great Exhibition. The altarpiece reflects the revival of the Gothic style that is often seen in Steampunk works. Plus, it makes it a lovely addition to the imposing bookcase.
The Hereford Screen
If the bookcase is a cathedral, the Hereford screen is a “symphony in metal.” It made its debut at the International Exhibition of 1862. Like the altarpiece above, this piece was a way to harken back to the Gothic era when churches employed them. The choir used to stand behind large and ornately carved wooden screens. But this one was intended to showcase new advances in metal-working techniques as much as celebrate the Gothic style.
There are several figures on the screen, which more than 10 meters high. The figures could very well have been cast in bronze. Instead, they were created by using newly-discovered electroplating technology that employed plaster molds and electricity to bend copper to the artist’s will. This is truly an example of old-meets-new in the Victorian era, so it definitely piqued my Steampunk curiosity.
I was also very interested to try to pick out the things already a museum during the period in which most Steampunk stories are set. One of the main points of creating the museum was for the inspiration and edification of artists, inventors, and even the common folk. So, you can bet that the characters that inhabit the world of 20th century London had occasion to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum at some point in their lives.
A Great Spot for Steam Age Inspiration
Some people might think the V&A is not up their alley once they hear the focus is on “decorative arts.” But believe me when I tell you this is not a place where you are going to be inundated with doilies and end tables. (Or at least, you don’t have to be. They certainly have furniture in spades!)
Personally, I love the decorative arts. These are the objects that people really did touch, see, and experience in their everyday lives, including architectural features. In addition to the fabulous clothing and sumptuous household goods, there is an amazing gallery of just samples of ironwork.
There are still lots of examples of wrought and cast iron all over London. But these items have often been painted and repainted so many times that the delicacy and detail that can be achieved when working in metal has been totally obliterated. This is not so at the museum, where everything from window grates to railings to candlesticks have been preserved for posterity. If you are a fan of metal, you should definitely make sure you stop by the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Another reason I wanted to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum was to check the displays of fashion through the ages. There is a really great circular gallery with men’s and women’s clothing near the main entryway. It would be a great place to do research for costumes, both to get visual inspiration as well as great background info. My best pictures were mostly of dresses, but there are lots of great suits, boots, and hats for the menfolk as well. The glare on the glass cases gets in the way like crazy in photos, so it is definitely worth visiting in person.
Tips for Visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum:
- The powers that be make it very easy to get to this and other free museums of merit. In fact, you can take the tube and then use a tunnel system to get to the aptly named Exhibition Road which is home to not only the V&A, but also The Science Museum and The Museum of Natural History.
- On one end of Exhibition Road there is a lovely neighborhood with restaurants and nice little shops. On the other end you can stroll through Kensington Gardens, which was once the private garden of Kensington Palace.
- Inside the museum there is a beautiful courtyard that features a cafe and shallow wading pool full of frolicking children on nice days.
Have you ever been to this amazing museum? Did you have a favorite exhibit I didn’t mention? Share with your fellow fans of Victoriana in the comments!