Quite a bit has happened to the Victoria & Albert Museum in its 165 year history – heists, bombings, construction and moments of brilliance. These posts are based off our #THATMuseFacts on Twitter – because a tweet sometimes isn’t enough! If you like learning about funny, interesting or just plain bizarre facts about some of Europe’s coolest museums, follow @THAT_Muse_ on Twitter and look for our quarterly “Top 10” posts like this one about the British Museum, Louvre and Musée d’Orsay!
1) In 1913, the V&A considered banning women because it feared militant suffragettes would vandalize the museum. After Mary Richardson took an axe to Velazquez’s The Toilet of Venus in the National Gallery, alarm spread through London’s museums and galleries. The suffragettes’ actions actually contributed to the V&A’s decision to do away with admission fees in 1914, reasoning that an increase in the number of visitors would act as extra security against possible attacks.
2) A V&A custodian named John Andrew Nevin was arrested and found guilty of stealing thousands of objects from the V&A in the 1950s.
Some of his loot included diamonds belonging to Catherine the Great, swords and Chinese jade, which he smuggled out by stuffing them down his trouser legs. When asked for an explanation, Nevin said, “I couldn’t help myself. I was attracted by the beauty.” In total, Nevin stole 2,068 items from the museum – the largest ever theft in terms of quantity from a British museum (not the BM!). (Read more here!)
3) The oldest photograph of London, probably taken in 1839, is housed in the V&A.
A man named Monsieur de St Croix took the photo from Trafalgar Square, looking down Parliament Street. It is actually a daguerreotype, so the picture is on a silvered copper plate. It is very detailed; if you look closely, you can see a statue of King Charles I and people who stayed still long enough to be in the photograph. The process of daguerreotypy was invented in Paris but quickly brought to London.
4) Two dogs—Tycho and Jim – are buried in the V&A’s John Madejski garden.
Jim, a Yorkshire terrier, belonged to Sir Henry Cole, the V&A’s first director. Cole would often take Jim to work at the museum with him and loved him dearly enough to have an enamel model made of the scruffy little dog. Tycho belonged to Cole’s son, Alan. And yes, this is a bonus question for some of our THATMuse V&A hunts, sending teams to find the plaques directly to the right, if entering the beloved garden courtyard from the V&A’s cafe entrance.
5) Aside from being the V&A’s first director and an exuberant dog lover, Henry Cole is also credited with inventing the Christmas card in 1843 (see below).
He commissioned a designer and a printer to create over a thousand cards that could then be personalized and sent to friends. Cole also made enough to sell, but they were expensive and deemed a commercial flop. But when Dicken’s novel “A Christmas Carol” was published, Christmas cards caught on. Yes, this trivia is in our Festivities hunt at the V&A — glad you read this post? (Read more here!)
6) The V&A was the first museum to create a public restaurant, which was originally called the “Refreshment Rooms.”
Henry Cole (he sure pops up a lot, doesn’t he?) managed the Great Exhibition in 1851 and saw that many visitors there enjoyed having a hot meal or tea while going about the exhibits. He brought the idea back when the V&A was opened so that guests could have a similar experience. However, the restaurant was described as “hideously ugly” and the original structure – which clashed horribly with the museum itself – was demolished 11 years after it was built.
7) The tallest object in the V&A is a plaster cast of Trajan’s Column, which stands 35.6 meters high!
In fact, it is displayed as two separate towers because it is too tall to fit inside the gallery. The Cast Court (including Trajan’s Column,) was installed in the V&A to allow people too poor to travel see culturally important works of art.
8) The Great Bed of Ware (which comes up in our “Festive Feasting” treasure hunt!) is, arguably, Britain’s most famous bed.
It is over three metres wide and, according tolegend, can hold at least four couples. The bed was famous enough in its day that Shakespeare referenced it in his play Twelfth Night, and 14th century tourists came from all over to lay eyes on it. Evidence of their visits can be seen via the carved initials and wax seals on the bedposts and headboard.
9) Horses and carts take up a lot of space – which the V&A learned when packages and post were delivered to the V&A and the horse did not have enough room to maneuver and get back to the street.
To deal with this issue, the V&A built a large turn-table – the horse just had to stand there and the floor beneath it would just rotate! Talk about inventive.
10) If you’re standing in front of the V&A, look up – you’ll see a large, imposing statue standing atop the building’s central tower.
This figure is Fame – and she’s not as scary as she looks, especially since she’s missing her nose!