The 145 galleries, study rooms and archives in London's Victoria and Albert Museum are filled to the rafters with 4.5 million objects covering 5,000 years of art and design from four continents. The sprawling Victorian buildings in South Kensington contain the world's largest collection of art and design, all of it on display free of charge to visitors. The story of how all this wonderful stuff got there in the first place is both fascinating and unique.
Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, organized London's Great Exhibition of 1851. The event was a showcase of treasures from ancient times right through to then-modern technology from Britain and around the world. The world's fair was housed in a glass architectural marvel in Hyde Park called Crystal Palace, a structure so big that trees grew inside its dome. Attracting enormous crowds of all classes of society throughout its six months, the Great Exhibition was a roaring success, bringing 42,000 visitors daily.
The world’s fair was a stage for launching inventions such as the grain reaper, the Colt revolver, a folding knife with 80 blades and a brand-new wonderment, the flushing toilet. Everyday items — such as an ice-cream freezer, German-made stuffed animals and a cypress-carved canoe — demonstrated life abroad.
Aside from Cyrus McCormick’s medal-winning Virginian grain harvester being featured in the Machines in Motion hall, the Great Exhibition’s big highlights were the 184-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond and a stuffed elephant sent from India.
In an era when few people traveled abroad, such brilliant items seemed to be assembled under one spectacular glass roof as if by magic. These were things to be marveled at and discussed for a lifetime. Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice in Wonderland,” commented, "I think the first impression produced on you when you get inside is of bewilderment. It looks like a sort of fairyland. As far as you can look in any direction, you see nothing but pillars hung about with shawls, carpets with long avenues of statues, fountains, canopies."
Author Charlotte Brontë wrote, "Whatever human industry has created, you find there! Railway engines and boilers, mill machinery, splendid carriages of all kinds, glass-covered stands loaded with the most gorgeous work of gold and silver smiths, carefully guarded caskets full of real diamonds and pearls worth thousands of pounds."
The fair’s organizers kept careful records, from numbers of sausages sold to how many used the public toilet on a given day. In the end, it made a considerable profit from its more than six million visitors. Prince Albert directed funds toward the purchase of land in South Kensington to create a permanent home for museum-goers of the future. Now, visitors can view permanent and temporary exhibitions about styles, periods and creations from Art Deco design to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album in the galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
by Laurie Jo Miller Farr
The Victoria and Albert Museum was built to house collections that arose from the Great Exhibition of 1851. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
This Cartier belt buckle was part of a recent exhibit of items from the Maharajas' 200-year rule. (Photo by Marco Secchi/Getty Images)
Dorothy's shoes from “The Wizard of Oz” were featured in a Hollywood Costume Exhibition at the V&A Museum. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for The V&A)