The People’s Galleries: South Kensington Museum – The V&A

Giles Waterfield’s The People’s Galleries is a wide-ranging examination of the phenomenon of the art museum in Britain, from its early days in 1800 when the British Museum was Britain’s only public museum, to the onset of the First World War. Paying particular attention to museums outside London, Waterfield argues that these new museums – and especially the art museums – represented a different type of institution that had not previously existed in Britain, or internationally.

To mark the release of this publication we are sharing a three-part series of extracts from The People’s Galleries that explore the origins of these museums, many of which still exist today and are as popular as ever. The final extract in the series looks at the South Kensington Museum, or what we now know as the Victoria and Albert Museum


The People's Galleries

The Educational Museum, South Kensington Museum (‘The Brompton Boilers’), photographed c. 1859

From The People’s Galleries

by Giles Waterfield

The character of the early South Kensington Museum also anticipates the provincial galleries. In its early days it combined its art and science collections in a spirit of broad generalisation – indeed, it could scarcely be described as an art museum. As defined in 1858 , the museum had a multivalent and overtly didactic character that is hardly comprehensible today. True to its descent from a temporary exhibition and its governance by the Department of Science as well as of Art, it contained nine departments: the Sheepshanks collection of British paintings; modern sculpture; ‘Ornamental Art’; architectural casts; a ‘Circulating Art Library’; models illustrating methods of building; models ‘used in Education’ (Fig. 99 ); ‘Materials illustrating the uses of Animal Materials’; and ‘Models of potential inventions’.46 The Guide to the South Kensington Museum of 1865 suggests a didactic bazaar, full of individual assemblages of stuff. The visitor who had negotiated the Museum of Building Materials filled with interesting patents and processes, and who had not been too much startled by a poultry house built for the Queen next to a model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, would proceed to the Educational Museum, where the displays were aimed at ‘those engaged in teaching’ and illustrated school buildings and equipment. The Gallery of Naval Models was followed by the Food Museum, with its alarmingly realistic models, including wax ones, ‘In order to make people acquainted with the appearance of diseased meat, and meat unfit for human food’. Only then did one reach the Art Library, the South Court with its ‘Rare and choice examples of Art Workmanship’, the casts and architectural specimens (Fig. 100 ), and the ten Picture Galleries, which had been established in South Kensington because the pictures could not be accommodated in Trafalgar Square.

This attempt to create a museum that would instruct builders, teachers and craftsmen in bettering their work and their lives constituted a radical departure from any museum of the past. It also shaped one of the prevailing characteristics of the provincial museums: the presentation of practical and moral homilies. Not all observers admired the results.


The People’s Galleries: Art Museums and Exhibitions in Britain, 1800-1914 by Giles Waterfield is available from Yale University Press.

For an article written by the author, please click here. 

The People's Galleries

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