Tags

Time Travel Explorer Blog

Mapping Museumland: London's forgotten exhibition.

by Peter Watts 8. April 2011 09:28

We now take the cluster of museums in South Kensington - the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the V&A - somewhat for granted, but they are all relatively recent additions to the London landscape. Here's that part of London as recently as 1830, when there was very little sign of inhabitation in the area south of Hyde Park. Brompton was best known for its market gardens and nurseries - you can see them marked on the map below - and these had a reptutation that made them known across Europe. These had been established in the 1600s, but were not to be around for much longer.

In 1851, the Great Exhibition opened on the site, transforming this hitherto quiet corner of London. When the Crystal Palace was take down and moved to Sydenham, it was almost immediately followed in 1862 by the International Exhibition. That is the structure that dominates the Stanford map of the same year.

Sometimes described as the 'forgotten exhibition', this covered a site of 23 acres - four times larger than the Great Exhibition - and almost six million people came to see a curious collection of objects housed in a huge domed building. Exhibits included telescopes, organs, lighthouses, obelisks, pickles, furs, dolls and statues. Also on view was the groundbreaking 'folding furniture' - a bed, six chairs, armchair, two sofas and gaming table that could somehow fit inside two wardrobes.

The building was meant to be permanent, but was pulled down at the end of the decade as the government baulked at the cost of preservation and decided the site would make an ideal location for the Natural History Museum, which at the time was crammed into the British Museum. Part of the fabric was taken away and used in the construction of Alexandra Palace.

Alongside the International Exhibition site you can see the South Kensington Museum, which had opened in 1857. Built by William Cubbitt, this was nicknamed the 'Brompton Boiler', in reference to its utilitarian design of long galleries covered by corrugated iron. Housed in these factory-like conditions were a variety of competing museums - the Museum of Manufacture, the Museum of Construction, the Museum of Animal Products, the Food Museum, the Education Museum, the Economica Museum, the Museum of Oriental Art and the Museum of Patents. These were eventually pulled down in 1889 when the V&A was constructed, and the Brompton Boilers were taken to Bethnal Green and re-erected, now covered in bricks, as the Museum of Childhood. The contents of the Brompton Boilers were divided between the V&A, the Science Museum (1913) and the Natural History Museum, which opened in 1881.

Which brings us to South Kensington as it is today.