With more visitors a year than Venice, South Kensington, dubbed “Albertopolis” for its links to Prince Albert, is the home of science, art and inspiration…
“Alight for the museums,” the voice of the tube announcer instructs upon arrival at South Kensington station. The absence of specifics might baffle first-time visitors. But it soon becomes apparent that this is not equivocation… After all, South Kensington is home to three of the city’s giant bastions of culture: the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, keeping the culturally curious inspired, no matter whether their persuasion is towards art, history or science.
It is no accident that these cultural and educational monoliths should have clustered in South Kensington. Otherwise neatly known as “Albertpolis”, the nurturing breeding ground for ideas was the brainchild and passion of Prince Albert, Prince Consort and husband of Queen Victoria, who lived just minutes away from the area that would take his name, at Kensington Palace. As a result of the Prince’s vision, Exhibition Road and its many revered treasures became one of the world’s first-ever planned and designed cultural quarters.
The Great Exhibition of 1851, held in a bespoke-designed Crystal Palace erected in nearby Hyde Park, was a trailblazing international showcase of manufactured products and was designed and created at the instigation of Prince Albert, along with enterprising civil servant Henry Cole (the latter also, curiously, credited with creating the Christmas cards as we know it).
The exhibition was visited by some six million people, and the proceeds poured into the creation of this revolutionary new collection of educational organisations. Indeed, many of the artefacts shown at the Great Exhibition came to form the initial collections of the South Kensington Museum, which would later become the world-famous Victoria and Albert Museum.
The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, who helped establish some of the cultural and educational institutions that we see here today, is still the landowner and continues to distribute profits of the Great Exhibition, contributing to an impressive range of research fellowships, including funding 13 Nobel Laureates.
Today, the cluster of national educational treasures means that the area is also a crucible for world-leading and pioneering research across science, design, technology, engineering and music and home to a remarkable cluster of experts, many international leaders in their fields. In addition to the museums, you’ll also find some of the most brilliant young brains in the country frequenting the area; the Royal College of Music, the Royal College of Art, Institut français, Goethe-Institut and Imperial College London also call South Kensington their home.
Discover South Kensington is the body that harnesses and brings together all the academic and cultural entities that make South Kensington great (its rollcall of influential members span the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Imperial College London, Goethe-Institut, Institut français, the Ismaili Centre, Kensington Palace, Royal Albert Hall, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Royal College of Music, Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), Serpentine Galleries, The Royal Parks, the Design Museum, and Christie’s South Kensington).
Attracting more visitor than Venice, “Albertpolis” offers hundreds of events each week, from film screenings to concerts to exhibitions to late-night access and events across the museums. (For more, see the Discover Kensington website.) Prince Albert and Henry Cole would, surely, be proud and thrilled to see their legacy undimmed some 164 years on.
Pick up a copy of the latest issue of Discover Britain to read all about Britain’s best music venues including the Royal Albert Hall.