I n 1851, Prince Albert and inventor Henry Cole organised The Great Exhibition, the first event of the World’s Fairs. Held at the opulent Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, The Great Exhibition showcased a gamut of technological innovations ranging from Frederick Bakewell’s precursor to the fax machine to the ‘tempest prognosticator’, a leech barometer that indicated the probability of a storm. The Exhibition was an overwhelming success: an estimated six million people, equivalent to a third of the entire British population at the time, passed through the gates of the Crystal Palace, turning a £186,000 profit (around £20,000,000 today). A thrifty couple, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert avoided blundering into another war with France and instead used this surplus to build a number of cultural and educational sites including Victoria & Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum. Alongside the Imperial Institute, these grand edifices formed the organ system of Albertopolis, a cultural hub based in South Kensington in which the main artery, Exhibition Road, led towards The Great Exhibition itself.
Whether Albert’s grandiose vision for Albertopolis was borne out of a nationalistic desire to project England’s greatness to the rest of the world or part of an altruistic quest for humanitarian betterment, his institutions succeeded in making vast global inroads. 167 years on, an estimated 20,000,000 people visit Kensington’s Cultural Quarter each year, 12,000,000 of which visit the V&A Museum, Science and Natural Albertopolis: London’s Cultural Quarter By James Billot History museums alone. “Prince Albert created very global institutions,” says Emily Candler, Executive Director of the Exhibition Road Cultural Group, “they were looking out to the world but also inviting the world in”. This worldly invitation was not limited to visitors either: nearly 30,000 people work or research at Albert’s institutions, all drawn together “not just by geography and common history, but most importantly, by a common mission,” adds Candler. “We are all about learning and innovation in the arts and sciences, which makes us distinct from any other cultural quarter that I can think of ”.
Comprising 19 educational and cultural institutions, the Exhibition Road Cultural Group formalised as a charity group in 2006. The Group’s membership boasts a menagerie of cultural institutions including the Goethe Institut, Serpentine Gallery and its latest addition, Japan House. Ostensibly, there is little to tie this eclectic group of institutions together beyond their geographical proximity but, as Candler points out, they all “share a common objective based on ‘experience, exploration and exchange’…The whole point of the group is to learn from each other and how we can improve”. Each year, board members, directors and communications teams convene to discuss how these three principles can be improved. Issues pertaining to experience, for example, can be as granular as changing the queue system for the cloak room, whereas others demand a thicker slice of the Group’s attention. One such issue is the lack of step-free access at South Kensington tube station, the main point of access for the V&A, Science and Natural History museums. Candler delicately addresses the subject: “It is an absolute disgrace,” she says, “that this leading centre of education doesn’t have step-free access at its main point”. Given that around 30,000,000 tube-riders tap through the station’s barriers each year, the criticism is warranted. “We are in talks with TfL (Transport for London) to sort this out,” she concludes.
There is a sense of urgency in Candler’s voice, undoubtedly cognisant of the fact that problems like these can invalidate a visitor’s experience. “My focus is on visitor experience,” says Candler, “I look at what goes on around coming in and having that awe-inspiring moment with the object, because that actually affects how you feel about the museum… crowding and queues inside the museum and places like the tube station have a subliminal effect on your experience”. Having spent 20 years in and around museums, Candler is highly sensitised to these considerations, but her antennae perk to full attention when probed about the boom period that museums are currently enjoying. “Museums are great for our society because it is so much more than a great day out,” says Candler. “It’s about learning how to question, learning how to look at evidence…and seeing things with your own eyes in a world where we are seeing everything on our phones”. Candler is positive about the future of museums, noting that adult and child participation has risen by 10% over 10 years to over 50% and in London, the figure is “much higher”. Figures from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) buttress Candler’s optimism: in 2016/17, there were 47.3 million visits to DCMS museums, up by approximately 7 million visits in 2008/09.
So what has been the driving force behind Kensington’s Cultural Quarter? Candler responds without missing a beat: “It is thriving because everything is about interdisciplinary studying and collaboration now,” she says. “If you’re studying product design for instance, you work with artists at the Royal College of Art and scientists at the Natural History and Science museums”. Encased within a 500-metre radius, the propinquity of these institutions to one another encourages a deeper inculcation and, importantly, cross-fertilisation of knowledge. Collectively, therefore, the Group is fulfilling (and excelling in) Albert’s original mission: to create a hotbed for learning, innovation and research. This holistic approach to education imbues itself in other areas of learning too, namely through school engagement. Over the past 12 years, the Exhibition Road Cultural Group have run a series of annual workshops known as Creative Quarter, which gives teenagers insights into creative careers. Speaking in 2016, Candler said: “80% of the young people who attended Creative Quarter last year said they were more interested in the creative careers as a result”. This year, the director’s aim is to include even more schoolchildren so they too can have “the chance to create, explore and discover for themselves what creative jobs are really like”. Few (not least of all Prince Albert) could have predicted Albertopolis’ flourishing metamorphosis from a royal vanity project in 1851 to one of the most venerable collection of institutions in the world today. Perhaps Candler has become accustomed to it in this line of work, but the director does not permit herself to indulge in this momentary flash of nostalgia. Rather, as Albert did 167 years before, she is looking ahead: “We have to keep evolving as an organisation and keep attracting new people. That is why these buildings have been so successful”.