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The Industrial Revolution is a saga of unprecedented technological evolution and economic transformation in human history. Equally important is the severe impact industrialization had on the health and welfare of the working class.  What is not well known outside of academia, however, were the devastating effects of the Industrial Revolution on the rural population, from which the English countryside has never fully recovered. Nevertheless, there is an amazing story of how industrialization came very close to “killing” the arts in 19th century Britain and how one of the world’s greatest museums was created to rescue Britain’s artistic heritage!


A Brief History: The Industrial Revolution began in England in the mid-1700s and instigated many changes in manufacturing, transportation, communication, commerce, and working conditions. The driving force was steam power—an integral part of the Industrial Age. The prototype for the first steam engine was produced by Thomas Newcomen in the early 18th century. The demand for coal soared, since it was needed not only to power factories but also to transport the goods they produced. Around 1770, a stock exchange was established in England, and about 20 years afterward, the New York Stock Exchange was founded. In 1837, the need for effective communication across increasing distances gave rise to the first widespread telegraphy system, which was patented by Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke. In the 1840s and 1850s, the Industrial Revolution began spreading to other countries, including the United States.


Changes in Industry & Labor: Prior to the Industrial Revolution, everything was made by hand or in small workshops. The Industrial Age introduced the idea of the assembly line, where products moved across a conveyor belt lined with workers. Each worker on the assembly line was responsible for adding a single component. This was far more efficient than the old way of manufacturing and allowed for sharp declines in prices. For workers, though, assembly lines made work incredibly tedious, and since unskilled labor was sufficient for these positions, workers saw a drastic decrease in their labor power. It was not uncommon for women and children to be used as a cheap labor source in Industrial-Age factories. In the following years, low wages and poor working conditions would give rise to the formation of unions and the introduction of child-labor legislation.


Rural-to-Urban Migration & Emigration: However, a question not often asked is where did all these factory workers in Britain come from? From 1800 to 1900, the population of Britain boomed from 9 million to 41 million, partly due to immigration. In the 1840s, many people from Ireland were fleeing a terrible potato famine; and in the 1880s, the Tsar began persecuting Russian Jews and many fled to Britain. However, these population statistics do not tell the whole story: In England, the factory workforce came via internal migration, primarily from the rural areas of England, Scotland, and Wales. The decennial UK censuses record that, from 1841 to 1901, the rural areas of England and Wales lost more than 4 million people from internal migration, 3 million of whom moved to British towns—at a rate of more than half a million people per decade. By 1851 more than half the population lived in towns, making England the world’s first urban society. Abandonment of homes and sometimes entire villages resulted in a depopulation of the countryside. In the second half of the 19th century, another 15 million people emigrated from Britain to Australia and North America to escape poverty. (As a personal example: three branches of my British family simply “disappeared” after the 1861 UK census because they had emigrated to Australia and New Zealand). 


However, the people most likely to migrate to factory towns were the most able-bodied and those with occupational abilities. Craftsmen of every type (blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, saddlers, weavers, potters, tailors, stone masons, etc.) were deserting rural areas for better economic opportunities as assembly-line workers in factories.  This decades-long brain drain of artisans had a tremendous impact, and the quality of manufactured goods in Britain declined below all other major European nations. This artistic decline in Britain even caught the attention of Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria and promoters of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Three events in the mid-19th century managed to reverse the loss of Britain’s rural artistic heritage: 1) the creation of a national initiative in art education, 2) the first world’s fair in London, and most importantly, 3) the founding of the Victoria & Albert Museum.


Public Art Education: In 1835, the British Parliament established its Select Committee on Arts & Manufactures to hold debate and issue a report on the status of the arts, design, industry, and commerce. However, Parliament’s concern was purely commercial: England was falling behind France in terms of national artistic prestige, the aesthetic quality of manufactured products, and in the commerce of exported goods. Both members of Parliament and 28 expert witnesses called to testify placed blame in many directions: the lack of aesthetic appreciation among lower class consumers, the quality of English design and manufacture, the unwillingness of British manufacturers to employ artists and designers, and the inaccessibility of the fine arts to the majority of the population. However, there was no blame placed where it really belonged—on nationwide poverty, rural depopulation, and migration of expert craftspeople to factory employment. On the subject of how to implement art education for the people, moreover, there was considerable worry that only a certain kind of art education—practical design for the purposes of manufacturing—should be provided to the working classes in order to maintain their place in society. So as not to disturb the class system, education in the fine arts was reserved for the upper classes. The immediate outcome of these deliberations was the opening of the Normal School of Design in London in 1837, followed by the opening of design schools in major towns and cities throughout Britain.


The 1851 Great Exhibition (World’s Fair), London: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations was the first of the World’s Fairs and is sometimes called the Crystal Palace Exhibition, in reference to the spectacular glass architecture (1,848 feet long by 454 feet wide) in which it was held. The Great Exhibition was the ultimate celebration of the Industrial Revolution, with displays of industry, technology, culture, and science primarily to showcase Britain, but also with exhibits from many other nations. The exhibition was organized by Henry Cole and Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, and other members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, with the goal that an international exhibition in London would educate the public and inspire British designers and manufacturers. Six million people—a third of the entire population of Britain at the time—visited the Exhibition. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a financial success, and the excess revenue was used to found the South Kensington Museum (1852), which would subsequently become the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


Victoria and Albert Museum, London: The Victoria and Albert Museum (abbreviated as the V&A) is the world’s largest museum of applied and decorative arts, design, and sculpture with a collection of over 2.25 million objects.  Having originated out of the Great Exhibition of 1851, it was first named the Museum of Manufactures, and Henry Cole (an organizer of the Great Exhibition) was the museum’s first director. The museum opened in 1852 at Marlborough House, provided by Prince Albert, which also served as a National Art Training School (later becoming the Royal College of Art). The first objects in the collection, covering both the applied arts and sciences, were purchased from several of the exhibits at the Great Exhibition, and the expanding museum was transferred to Somerset House. A collection of plaster casts and ornamental art works, which had been assembled for teaching purposes by the School, was added to the renamed Museum of Manufactures.  


However, more space was needed, and the museum moved to a new location on the site of the Great Exhibition and renamed again The South Kensington Museum in June 1857. A major innovation was the first appearance of indoor gas lighting that allowed the museum to remain open into the evening hours in winter and made it easier for working people to visit the museum. In 1857, the museum also added “refreshment rooms” where hungry visitors (far from food provisions in the city) could get a hot meal, and in 1868 three new refreshment rooms were built. This was the first museum restaurant in the world, an idea Cole got from his role in organizing the Great Exhibition. In 1862, other innovations included a self-supporting iron and glass roof to maximize the light into the display area, an elaborate light-controlling blind system, a combined heating and ventilation system sunk into passages under the floor, and air-cleansing screens. Additional educational facilities included new art and science schools and a lecture theater. The name of the museum was changed yet again, in 1899, to the Victoria and Albert Museum, when Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for a new building that was finally finished in 1909.


The collections of decorative arts at the South Kensington Museum were explicitly intended to have a practical, educational impact and to influence better design of goods produced by artisans and in factories. The museum, from its founding and continuing thereafter, was not a collection made for the sake of collecting—its most important functions were to be useful and educational to the general public, industry, and artisans. From its inception, the museum aggressively collected examples of decorative arts in all materials (e.g., ceramic, metal, glass, textile, wood, stone, plaster), not only from the British Isles, but worldwide. The museum’s mission equally included preservation—as just one example, the V&A was able to collect ceramics from potteries throughout 19th-century England, and in the process the museum rescued much of what has since disappeared from the cultural landscape.