As one of the most recognised names in the art and design world, it isn’t surprising that the V&A has finally taken the decision to expand outside of its original home in London. It follows in the footsteps of a number of other cultural institutions that have set their sights further afield in recent years, including the Louvre’s recent Abu Dhabi addition. What may come as more of a surprise to people is the V&A’s slightly less exotic choice of location: Dundee.
As Scotland’s fourth biggest city, with a population of just under 150,000, in the past Dundee has been seen as the poorer cousin of its larger neighbouring cities such as Edinburgh. The decline of traditional manufacturing industries in the former east coast trading port has also led to its reputation as a hotbed for social deprivation, unemployment and drink and drug abuse. Last year, it even overtook Glasgow as the drugs death capital of Europe, according to research by the National Records of Scotland.
Despite the social problems that clearly still exist in Dundee, the story that the national media has neglected to tell about the city over the years is of its cultural prowess – at least until the V&A’s arrival now. Long before the museum’s announcement, Dundee was home to art galleries such as Dundee Contemporary Arts, cult children’s comic The Beano and not one but two well-respected universities, Duncan of Jordanstone and Abertay, which boasts one of the oldest video game design courses in the world. In 2014 it was also named as a UNESCO City of Design – still the only one in the UK to date and one of only 22 countries globally.
“People often ask, ‘why V&A and Dundee?’” says V&A Dundee Director Philip Long. “It’s a city that recognises investment in culture is a good thing, but it’s also a city which has had low self-esteem in the past. I think back in 2007 when [the idea] was first discussed, what was realised was that if the V&A was going to come and do something here it could have a role in contributing to the changing fortunes of the city through design.”
The £80 million museum – which opens to the public this week and is Scotland’s first design museum – forms the centrepiece of a £1 billion, 30-year regeneration of the post-industrial Dundee waterfront, once part of the city’s docklands. Designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma (the brain behind Japan’s 2020 Olympic Stadium), the dramatic, concrete clad building nods to the city’s shipbuilding heritage, with a ‘prow’ that leans over the River Tay.
Inside the building, the museum’s contents will also pay tribute to its new home. Alongside the regularly changing blockbuster exhibitions that the V&A has become so known for in recent years, and which tend to put a design spin on popular culture topics to attract a broader audience, the Scottish Design Galleries will act as a permanent exhibition space dedicated to celebrating Scotland’s rich and varied design history. Curated in collaboration with the V&A and free to enter, it comprises 300 exhibits spanning everything from architecture and healthcare to furniture and video games.
Alongside some of the older exhibits, such as the fully restored, 13-metre-long Oak Room by Charles Rennie Mackintosh – originally used as a tearoom in the 50s and salvaged from a hotel development in the 70s – the curators have been mindful to include a mixture of more contemporary items as well. These include a pair of Hunter wellies dating from the 80s, a couture dress designed by Scotland born, fashion pack favourite Christopher Kane, and a giant installation of cult video game Lemmings, which was first developed in Dundee in the 90s.
The new museum also includes the Michelin Design Gallery, which will host smaller scale exhibitions of work by contemporary design talent; installations including one by Glasgow-based artist Ciara Phillips; learning spaces aimed at people of all age groups; a design residency studio for emerging talent; an auditorium for conferences and events; a restaurant and – of course – the inevitable museum gift shop.
While the galleries and the building itself are certainly impressive to look at, whether V&A Dundee will achieve its goal of being “a living room for the city”, as Kuma has described it, is another question altogether. “I think it’s a really big symbol of confidence and success in the city,” says Long. “It adds to the clout Dundee already has in the way that it makes a cultural contribution to Scotland, and it will certainly mean that more and more people will want to come here.”
For ordinary Dundonians, one of the main benefits of the opening is the “fire in the belly” it has brought to the city that certainly wasn’t there ten years ago, adds Dundee City Council Leader, Councillor John Alexander. More tangibly, the anticipation of its opening has already seen overnight stays in Dundee increase by almost 10% over the past year, and the council is estimating an £11.6 million a year boost to the local economy, which includes more than 300 extra jobs.
As for what the city of Dundee can do for an institution that is also in the midst of expanding to east London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and has been involved in recently opened cultural hub Design Society in China? “Having a V&A here makes people think about Dundee differently, [but] I think having a V&A Dundee will also make people think about the V&A differently,” says Long. “As an institution that in the UK is so associated with the South East, here it is contributing to the redevelopment of a city which has faced many years of difficult circumstances. I think that helps develop the brand of the V&A.”