Prince Albert's cultural legacy: Albertopolis

Royal Albert Hall and Albert Memorial Queen Victoria ensured her husband Albert's name lives on in the cultural hub which he inspired

The Royal Albert Hall, Science Museum and many other leading institutions live alongside each other in Kensington, west London, a cultural quarter which owes its existence to the vision of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort.

In 1851, six million visitors passed through the doors of an innovative Crystal Palace built in London's Hyde Park to celebrate technological and industrial achievements.

It was The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations. There were more than 100,000 exhibits of 19th Century technology including velocipedes and "adding machines" which might have caused a bank clerk to fear for his job.

Prince Albert was a key driving force behind the exhibition. For him this spectacular event represented "a true test and a living picture of the point of development at which the whole of mankind has arrived".

Prince Albert by Franz Xaver Winterhalter The South Kensington Museums complex is also known as Albertopolis

He also saw it as an ideal "starting point" for a much bigger project he dreamed of pursuing - providing a permanent home bringing together the arts and sciences under a "common roof".

The prince worked closely with a determined civil servant named Henry Cole. Responsibility for making Albert's cultural hub a reality was given to The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 - which had organised the world fair.

Using its profits of £186,000 (nearly £22m in today's prices), the commission purchased around 87 acres of land. At the time this was countryside in what was called Brompton. Today it is known as South Kensington and is home to museums including the Natural History Museum as well as the Royal Albert Hall and many other cultural institutions

"But it must not be forgotten", the Prince said at a meeting in August 1851, "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 must not be merely national but international, its advantages being open to men of all nations."

Some Albertopolis institutions

Natural History Museum
  • Royal Albert Hall
  • Science Museum
  • Natural History Museum
  • Royal Geographical Society
  • Royal College of Art
  • Victoria and Albert Museum
  • Royal College of Music
  • Imperial College
  • Goethe-Institut London
  • Institut Francais
  • Ismaili Centre

"He had a driving sense of duty and commitment to the nation and was committed to improving education any way he could," says author and historian Helen Rappaport.

Nigel Williams, who is the current secretary of the Commission said the plans were extremely ambitious with the first building - the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) - officially opening in 1857.

However, the original iron-framed structure covered in sheets of corrugated iron resembled a factory building, earning it the nickname 'the Brompton Boilers'.

Within a few years the area had become known as "Albertopolis" among some circles, to satirise the Prince's heavy involvement in the project, although it later took on a far more affectionate tone.

1910 plans of the estate The 1851 purchase of land allowed museums and other cultural bodies to develop on the same site

The first recorded mention came in The Times on 12 April 1860, which spoke of " the rising suburb of Albertopolis, south of the Kensington-road".

"In this new region are to be the new gardens of the [Royal] Horticultural Society, with a winter garden, splendid arcades, and other buildings in character; and no doubt, a site and space could be found here for a Museum of Natural History," the paper added, since the British Museum's natural history collection had become too large for its previous accommodation.

Prince Albert did not live to see it happen. He died aged 42 on 14 December 1861.

Sir Henry Cole was determined to see the prince's vision fulfilled as his "solemn legacy". In a letter dated 24 March 1862, Cole said he felt "driven almost to despair" by the project but it was imperative the struggle continued.

Queen Victoria made sure Albert's name would survive alongside that legacy. When she laid the foundation stone for the Central Hall of Arts and Science on 20 May 1867, she surprised the commissioners by renaming the building the Royal Albert Hall.

Chris Cotton, chief executive of the Royal Albert Hall, said: "She also said if this building was to be in memory of him, then it cannot be in the countryside - it must be in the city. That's why the boundary of Westminster changed. The top quarter containing our building and The Royal Geographical Society is in a different borough even though it is an integral part of Albertopolis."

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Science Museum in 1860

Queen Victoria was also adamant her husband would be honoured with a dedicated memorial. The Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens was opened to the public in July 1872, A statue of her husband - with a catalogue from the exhibition in his hand - was added in 1876.

And in her last official public appearance on 17 May 1899, Queen Victoria paid a further tribute to the husband she had lost more than 30 years ago by changing the name of the South Kensington Museum to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The area's reputation as a cultural hub steadily grew - as it provided homes for Imperial College, the Science Museum, the Royal College of Art, the Royal College of Music and the Royal College of Organists among others.

Notable alumni of the various institutions include Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May, singer Dame Joan Sutherland, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and entrepreneur Sir James Dyson.

Albertopolis by Nick Bowering Artist Nick Bowering is among the many creative figures inspired by Albertopolis

It continues to be a place of innovation - last year the land around Exhibition Road re-opened as "shared space" for pedestrians and motorists following a £28m redevelopment, while there has been a resurgence in the use of the Albertopolis label to describe the area.

The Royal Institute of British Architects has used the name for its online exhibition dedicated to the area, while the Royal Albert Hall is to host TEDxAlbertopolis - a gathering of high-profile scientists and artists on 23 September 2013.

There are cultural concentrations elsewhere in the world such as Washington's Smithsonian Institute and Vienna's Museumsquartier, but for Cotton, who is also chairman of the Exhibition Road Cultural Group, Albertopolis is a unique offering.

"There are fantastic museums, performance centres and individual conservatories around the world - but to have a collective body in such a tight area is something very few places can offer.

"It's not just about the museums, it is also about the world-class research and collaboration taking place here. This is a cultural metropolis," he says.

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