9 Secrets Of The Victoria And Albert Museum

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 90 months ago

Last Updated 23 December 2016

9 Secrets Of The Victoria And Albert Museum

First and second class menus, a pet memorial, and Queen Victoria's last appearance: here are some things you might not know about the V&A.

Photo: ArUK5

1. It used to be on the Mall

The first incarnation of the museum opened in Marlborough House on the Mall in May 1852, exhibiting items from the Great Exhibition of 1851. Just four months later it relocated to Somerset House on Strand, but by 1854 there were plans to relocate the museum again, this time to its current location, which at the time was occupied by Brompton Park House. The move was made in 1857.

2. What's in a name?

It's no secret as to why it's called the Victoria and Albert Museum, but the institution had at least two other names before that. When the idea for the museum was first floated following the Great Exhibition of 1851, it was known as the Museum of Manufactures. By 1854, once it had been relocated, it became known as the South Kensington Museum. It wasn't until Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone of the new building in 1899 that it was officially renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum.

3. First museum restaurant

Inside the Gamble Room, part of the V&A's restaurant. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum

The V&A was home to the world's first museum restaurant, still open today, originally known as the Refreshment Rooms. The elaborate Morris, Gamble and Poynter rooms make up the restaurant (the former designed by William Morris himself).

Apparently the restaurant originally had...

...different first and second class menus, and a third class service for 'mechanics and all workmen employed at the Museum Buildings and even for the humble working class visitors'

Examples of each of these menus can be seen here.

4. Leading the way in gas

As well as being a leader in museum dining, the V&A was the first museum in the world to use gaslight in its galleries. The museum's first director, Henry Cole, was keen to offer the working classes somewhere to visit in the evenings to ‘furnish a powerful antidote to the gin palace’, so had lighting installed and kept the gallery open until 10pm twice a week. Cole pioneered something else in his lifetime: he sent the first ever Christmas card.

5. The pet memorial in the courtyard

Photo: Londonist

Ever noticed these plaques on a wall in the courtyard? The one on the right is dedicated to Jim, the terrier belonging to the first director of the V&A, Henry Cole. The one of the left is in memory of Tycho, whose identity remained a mystery for a long time, until it was revealed that he was the dog of Henry Cole's son, Alan.

Photo: Andrea Pucci

6. Queen Victoria's last public appearance

After Albert's death in 1861, Queen Victoria was rarely seen in public. On 17 May 1899, however, she laid the foundation stone of the new V&A building, officially naming the museum the Victoria & Albert Museum. This turned out to be her last official public appearance. She died in January 1901.

7. Part of the old museum still exists in Bethnal Green

The Museum of Childhood is housed in the old 'Brompton Boilers'. Photo: Fin Fahey

When the museum moved to its current site in 1857, the existing Brompton Park House was extended with galleries made from iron frameworks and clad with corrugated iron, which became known as 'Brompton Boilers'.

The 'Brompton Boilers' didn't last long. They were dismantled in 1867 and re-erected in Bethnal Green, where they were given new brick walls. They now form the V&A's eastern outpost, the V&A Museum of Childhood.

8. War effort

During the second world war, the museum only closed briefly, in 1939. Despite staying open for the rest of the war, much of the collection was sent to other venues for safekeeping. Some items were sent to 'a large house in the west of England', which was later identified as Montecute House in Somerset, while other items were sent to an underground quarry in Wiltshire. The V&A also shared a tunnel near Aldwych tube station with the British Museum; both institutions stored artefacts here for safekeeping during the war.

The building itself suffered significant war damage — a plaque on the Exhibition Road side of the building acknowledges this. The structure was also put to good use, as a canteen for RAF employees.

9. Protected views

View of the museum from Thurloe Square. Photo: Google Maps

The museum owns the triangle of land opposite the main entrance, encased by Cromwell Gardens, Thurloe Place and Exhibition Road. It purchased the land in 1863 to ensure the view of the museum from Thurloe Square couldn't be obscured by new buildings.