Science in the Shadows

Victoria and Albert Museum

Hidden science can be found throughout the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Victoria and Albert Museum
Cromwell Road
London SW7 2RL
+44 (0)20 7942 2000

Those visiting London’s South Kensington museum district wanting to learn more about science would likely duck into the National History Museum or the London Science Museum. But on the same street the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A)—London’s primary museum of art, architecture, and design—is a secret goldmine for those interested in learning about the science of fine art.

The V&A’s world-class collection spans many cultures and includes such objects as Rodin statues, British silver, paintings from India under various rulers, and an aquamarine tomb that once housed a 14th-century Muslim ruler. A room filled with icons of modern design—from Bauhaus chairs to iPods—adds a contemporary touch. As engaging as all these exhibits are, however, the best place to look for science in the V&A is elsewhere. Roughly half the exhibits are ordered by “Materials and Techniques”: thematic collections ranging from gold, silver, and mosaics to portrait miniatures to photography. As the umbrella title suggests, these collections focus on the materials and methods deployed in a range of artistic genres. With the help of hands-on exhibits, videos, wall charts, discovery areas, and computer-based information portals, these collections do a good job of describing the tools and processes (both mechanical and chemical) that lie behind the works on display.

The photographic exhibition, for example, includes a touch screen with brief explanations of key techniques in the development of photography, from the albumen process (a method based on egg white for preparing photographic paper) to the Woodbury type (a photochemical process based on gelatin that led to dramatically improved print quality in the late 19th century). Also instructive are videos showing reconstructions of the fabrication process for some of the works on display; an intriguing example shows the procedure for creating the stone mosaics in the gold, silver, and mosaics gallery, a procedure as delicate and many-layered as the finished works themselves.

The best dovetailing of art and science in the V&A occurs when the works of art are ordered into a visual timeline of technical improvements. Displays of this kind appear in the collections of glass, textiles, ironwork, and tapestries. Perhaps the most charming example is the stained-glass window collection, a modestly sized but well-executed sequence ranging from 1140 to the present day. Each window’s description shows an admirable interest in the mechanics of glasswork, tracing technical innovations from the chunky, deeply colored windows of early pot-metal crafts to the finely wrought works of later centuries. An early innovation, the technique of “flashing,” made dense red-stained glass transparent: a thin layer of red glass was “flashed” over a thicker piece of clear glass, lending a rich glow to the many red elements embedded in the 12th- and 13th-century windows on display.

The stained-glass gallery faces onto the John Madejski garden, the museum’s inner quad, and the works catch plenty of light. Viewed under the evening sun, the gallery makes a graceful end to a tour of the museum—and provides a more pleasant setting for viewing the fruits of science and technology than one could find in either of the V&A’s more overtly science-focused neighbors.

Michael Bycroft is a freelance editor and writer currently pursuing a Ph.D. in the history of science at the University of Cambridge.