Prince Albert: Patron & Collector – Museums and Education in Victorian England

Museums & EducationAlbert’s German background, educational pursuits and patronage efforts accumulated in his aims for permanent museums as places of learning and leisure. Albert had a desire to reform deign and art education via a Kultuforum[1] in South Kensington, given the progressive, intellectual and reformative climate of the nineteenth century. Socially, the government had passed the Reform Bill of 1832[2] in light of the expansion of industrial centres in Britain: It became a matter of principle that the access to educational facilities be reworked through museums and libraries that would be available to wider sections of the public.


Interior of The South Kensington Museum: Opened to The Public on Wednesday last; wood- engraving; from Illustrated Times, 27th June, 1857. Museum no. 131198 NAL. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Prince Albert maintained this belief within his learned circle, taking cues from Henry Cole and associating with John Stuart Mill of the Utilitarian Movement: a philosophy which promoted the “greatest happiness” of the “greatest number” through practical contributions[3]. Those proposals that would lead to self-improvement were deemed opportune and highly beneficial to society. This implicated the museum as a moral and industrial stimulus, a primary concern of Albert whose formative influence on the South Kensington Museum was reflected in the ethos of free entry as part of the campaign to educate the masses.

Helen Rapppaport notes the prince’s ‘driving sense of duty and commitment to the nation’[4] and society at large, indeed his proposal of 1851 was that:

The funds with which the New Institution is to be founded are the contributions of all nations and the establishment of an Educational Institution […] its advantages being open to men of all nations.[5]

The first director of this establishment, Henry Cole, shared these sentiments with the ambition that it should offer “a powerful antidote to the gin palace”. To reform leisure, the museum would offer public amenities such as meeting rooms, libraries, lecture rooms, public restaurants, cloakrooms and toilets. South Kensington, then known as ‘Albertopolis’[6] was envisioned as a cultural quarter for London: Leading on from the successes of the Great Exhibition it became the site for the development of museum complexes which still stand today and testify Albert’s ambitions.


South End of the Iron Museum (the ‘Brompton Boilers’), South Kensington, A. Lanchenick, about 1860. Museum no. 2816 CIS. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Albert’s plans entailed the grouping of the sciences and arts in proximity, implying a scientific, practical and educational enterprise having realised the benefits of learning from objects. The South Kensington museum stood as the first incarnation of today’s Victorian & Albert Museum in the prince’s lifetime, acquiring picture galleries in the form of the Sheepshanks Gallery and the Turner and Vernon Collections that had been exhibited at Marlborough House. This centralisation consolidated the educational aims of the museum, as defined by design activities, multiple collections and a commitment to purpose and public access.


The South Court of the South Kensington Museum, about 1886. Museum no. E.1103-1989. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cole had seen the Great Exhibition as “an unrivalled storehouse for the useful results of human industry”[7] which sprung in part from the personal vision of Prince Albert, a prince whose humanitarian concerns became fermented in the eventual development of Victorian museums. In his life, Albert embraced learning, art and fundamental design, pioneering instructive modes of curatorship and institutional support of the public masses. His plans for a civic, educational complex found fruition in what now encompass the Science Museum, Imperial College of Science and Technology, Natural History Museum, Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Thank You-2

Prince Albert: Patron & Collector – Taste, Influence and Personal Preference here…
Prince Albert: Patron & Collector – Supporting the Efforts of Artists and Innovators here…
Prince Albert: Patron & Collector – A Curatorial Character here…

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Sources Used: 

[1] V&A, ‘V&A Annual Review 2013-14’, [n.d], [accessed 2018].

[2] British Library, ‘The 1832 Reform Act’, [n.d], chartists1/historicalsources/source2/reformact.html [accessed 2018].

[3] H. Walker, The Literature of the Victorian Era (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 170.

[4] D. Shah, ‘Prince Albert’s cultural legacy: Albertopolis’, BBC History: Knowledge & Learning Beta, September 19, 2013, ref_id=167&siteid=1499&id=3168715&t=1379608721 [accessed 2018].

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] P. van Wesemael, Architecture of Instruction and Delight: A Socio-historical Analysis of World Exhibitions as a Didactic Phenomenon (1798-1851-1970) (010 Publishers, 2001), p. 704


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