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The Victoria and Albert Museum, often referred to as simply the V&A, is located on Cromwell road in the south Kensington area of London. Founded in 1852, it is the largest museum of decorative arts and design in the world. The collection is housed in over 145 galleries that cover an area of over 50.000 square meters. One of the more recent additions are the British Galleries which trace British history through the development of art and design. In addition to the museums comprehensive range of permanent exhibits, the V&A offers an extensive programme of temporary exhibitions and events.

Victoria & Albert Museum

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The Victoria and Albert Museum’s origins date from 1851 at the time of The Great Exhibition, as many of its first exhibits came from here when the exhibition ended. Known as The Museum of Manufacturers, it was located in Marlborough House, it was opened in 1852, but it was quickly moved to Somerset House four months later. By 1854 arrangements were in place for a move to its present location, and to reflect this, there was a change of name to The South Kensington Museum, and was officially opened in 1857 by Queen Victoria. The foundation stone for the present Aston Webb building was laid by Queen Victoria in 1899, and it was then that the name was changed from The South Kensington Museum, to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Victoria was to die before the Aston Webb building was completed. On 26th June 1909 the Aston Webb building was declared open by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.

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Furniture has always been well featured at the V&A, but even more so after the introduction of a new dedicated gallery. The furniture collection is predominantly British which mostly date from 1700 to 1900, but it does not mean that the rest of the world has been excluded, as there are many fine exhibits from both Europe, and the Americas, but the oldest exhibit in the collection comes from Egypt, and is a chair leg, circa 300 AD. Some of the exhibits are in the form of completely furnished rooms, included is the office of the owner of a Pittsburgh department store which was designed by one of America’s foremost architects, Frank Lloyd Wright. A number of pieces of Art Nouveau furniture were donated by Sir George Donaldson in 1901. The addition of contemporary furniture drew some criticism and as a result it was decided that no further contemporary items were added to the collection. This policy remained in place until the 1960’s. The V&A classifies Musical instruments as furniture, except in the case of Asian instruments which are located in the Asian section. One of the prized possessions is a violin made in 1699 by Antonio Stradivari.

Victoria & Albert Museum 3

A dramatic inclusion is the Cast Courts in the Sculpture wing of the Museum. Consisting of two large rooms, each two stories high, they include a huge collection of plaster casts of important tombs, sculptures, and friezes. One of the main features here is a full-scale replica of Trajan’s Column, which despite the high ceilings has had to be displayed in two half’s to be able to fit it in. Another full-scale replica on display is that of Michelangelo’s David.

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By linking design to the history of Britain, the museum demonstrates the influences one has had on the other. The coming of the Tudor period brought along with it the accessibility of the printed word to the general population, and an increase of European craftsmen to the country. The increase in trade with Asia during the reign of the Stewarts saw the introduction of luxury items in the form of silk’s and porcelain. Further influences such as the emphasis on European styling brought about by the growing popularity of taking a Grand Tour of Europe, plus the effects of the Industrial Revolution.

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The V&A has a comprehensive collection of costumes dating from as early as 1600, with one of the prize exhibits being the wedding suit of James II of England. In 1913 the museum received a generous donation of 1,442 costumes from the Talbot Hughes collection, and later in 1971 there was a donation of 1,200 high-fashion 20th century garments that had been exhibited by Cecil Beaton, which included gowns that had once belonged to socialites such as Gloria Guinness, and film stars, including Audrey Hepburn. In 2002 the V&A acquired the Costiff collection which consisted of 178 costumes by Vivienne Westwood. Many other famous designers are featured here, including, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Zandra Rhodes, Hardy Amis, and Mary Quant. The British Film Institute has donated its entire costume collection to the museum and many of their prized possessions are now on display.