The South Kensington Museum was opened in 1857 on an estate acquired by the commissioners of the 1851 exhibition. It absorbed the Museum of Manufactures (successively renamed the Art Museum and the Museum of Ornamental Art) which had been opened in Marlborough House in 1852 for the display of the art and craft collections gathered for the School of Design at Somerset House and by a committee appointed by the Board of Trade in 1851 to purchase items from the Great Exhibition.
The South Kensington Museum also took over the science and art collections formed by the Society of Arts and the Science and Art Department, together with the Patent Museum, which was transferred fom the Patent Commissioners to the Science and Art Department in January 1884. The original iron building was supplemented by additional buildings erected between 1860 and 1884, and between 1899 and 1909. When Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone in 1899, she directed that the Museum be known thenceforth as the Victoria and Albert Museum.
In 1909 the science collections were administratively separated from the art collections to form the Science Museum. At the same time the Technical Branch moved from South Kensington to Whitehall and lost direct administrative responsibility for the museum, which became an independent entity under the control of the Board of Education and its successors. Since the National Heritage Act 1983 came into force it has been managed by a board of trustees in which property in the collections is vested.
The Victoria and Albert Museum houses a collection of fine and applied arts of all periods and types and from all countries, but it is primarily intended as a centre providing education in art, especially industrial and applied art, for the whole country. It also houses the National Art Library. It administers national funds from which purchase grants are made to local museums, galleries and other cultural and research institutions.
The Bethnal Green Museum is part of the Victoria and Albert Museum: in 1872, a part of the original South Kensington museum building was removed to a site at Bethnal Green to provide an art centre more accessible to the population of East London. Throughout its life it has housed items from the parent collection, but in 1975 it was relaunched as the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood.
The Victoria and Albert Museum also administers the Wellington Museum (Apsley House) opened in 1952, and the Theatre Museum founded in 1974 and established on its own site in Covent Garden in 1987. The National Art Library contains a collection of over 1,000,000 books, pamphlets, periodicals and archives dealing with all branches of fine and applied arts and also with the history of the book. The library and archives are open to the public.