It is always a privilege to get a preview of a new museum or exhibition. I am incredibly lucky with the support I get in the museum community and most crucially at home that allows me to go and experience the very best this country has to offer. Getting to the new V&A Dundee was a fantastic experience, not just a new museum but a reason to get out of London and visit a new city and discover a new place to share with you.
The V&A Dundee is a triumph, everyone agrees. A triumph £35 million over budget and 4 years later than originally planned, it is perhaps a bold statement. You have seen the pictures. Architecturally the museum is stunning, reviews range from “a twisting thrilling spaceship” to “futuristic waterfront wonder”. Whilst architecture inspires, what I am looking for is inside, underneath and contained within the hearts of everyone who works at the V&A Dundee. Tristram Hunt, V&A London Director, talks in his opening speech about an ‘international museum rooted in the local community’. He goes on to talk of the exchange of ideas and the interaction that makes museums change makers, but that is often harder to see and to find. The power of museums is not just in their architecture and visual profile, it is their heart that makes it work.
Architect Kengo Kuma and his team have, there is no doubt, produced something quite remarkable. It is elemental and proud, jagged and brutal, modern and forceful on the outside. Inside you are cosseted in wood, a sense of comfort and enclosure even in the large atrium space. Glimpse out to the stunning River Tay vista and you feel wrapped in a wooden cocoon agains the elements of nature.
I remember the first time I came across Kuma’s work in the ‘Sensing Spaces’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2014 in an installation of bamboo and soft lighting. I talked in my review about the protection of his structures and the balance of shape and pattern. There are echoes of that here. At the preview Kuma talks of the museum as a gate connecting nature and the City, a conversation where land meets water. The same phrase is repeated by Philip Long, the new V&A Dundee Director and Kuma, the museum is ‘A living room for the City’.
But does this ‘living room’ work as a museum? Perhaps that is a more complex question. In the ground floor atrium there is a communal space, obligatory cafe and rather understated shop. Up to the first floor you get spectacular views from the restaurant. There is a small open flexible space, the Michelin Design Gallery, currently showcasing a co-design project, the Scottish Design Relay. Here six teams of young apprentices from across Scotland were paired with young designers and encouraged to fuse traditional trades with current design practices.
There is a large temporary exhibition space opening with a reconfigured Ocean Liners Exhibition that ran at the London V&A earlier in the year. This ticketed space will see two exhibitions a year. Having missed this exhibition in London it is great to get a chance to catch it and see the stunning objects and fun exhibition design. As I am currently working my way through ‘The Crown’ I particularly like the monogrammed luggage of the Duke of Windsor who would often travel with up to 100 pieces of luggage. Beautiful objects also aptly explain the important role Scotland played in the design and development of these great ‘floating palaces’.
The new heart of the exhibition spaces is the free to enter Scottish Design Galleries with around 300 exhibits that tell the story and showcase the design heritage that Dundee is a part of. From Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s restored Oak Room to striking fashion with familiar names such as Vivienne Westwood’s love of tartan and Christopher Kane. There are some hands on chances to experience materials and methods of making. I particularly enjoyed the Hunter Wellies interactive, who knew the simple wellie was constructed from 28 separate pieces?
The Scottish Design Galleries bring design ideals up to date highlighting the proud heritage of Dundee’s comic publishing industry in the form of Dennis the Menace and the burgeoning computer games industry that is based in the City. There are mentions of a number of computer games; Lemmings, Grant Theft Auto as well as the latest work coming out of the Biome Collective, a community and co-working space that is currently exploring new frontiers in games, digital art and technology.
I personally feel there is not enough to get hands on with and interact with, certainly not in the current temporary exhibition. For me museums work best when you can touch, see, smell and interact. We learn through doing, feeling and sensing which is so central to the design process. I am not talking about turning the museum into a kids playground but here is a space to really highlight the power, complexity and design process that underpins for example, the games industry, but putting on headphones and watching a clip is not it.
There is an opportunity here for all to get a chance to play and experience technology that is even more important for older generations who can sometimes feel left behind by the digital divide. It is while in these galleries that I get a chance to talk to Graeme Bletcher from Abertay University on their V&A Dundee partnership work and what it means to a small university of only 4,000 students to have an opportunity to work with V&A Dundee Designer in Residence Simon Meek.
Dundee has a proud history of innovation in computer design, Bletcher tells me of the small interdisciplinary teams currently studying degrees in computer design at the university and how the co-collaboration gives them the edge in gaining employment as they are work-place ready learning how to work with different teams. There is an entrepreneurship around the mobile games industry that can see young people starting up on their own with minimal resources. You can easily see the opportunities that exhibitions, design spaces and innovative education programmes that the V&A Dundee can bring to the city, surrounding area and the young people at the heart of it.
It is these partnerships with Abertay University and also the University of Dundee that are crucial. Listening to the leader of the Council, John Alexander, you can see the passion and importance behind the work and what the V&A Dundee is trying to achieve.
Dundee is not without its problems, high numbers of drug deaths, poverty and wealth inequality has led to protests at such a large Scottish investment (£38 million). Not so long ago Dundee had the highest teenage pregnancy rate, but no more, interventions with local authorities, schools and health authorities working together have made a difference. Perhaps the V&A Dundee is and will be the economic and social intervention that Councillor Alexander hopes it will be.
The V&A Dundee will bring in the crowds, tourists and money. I got a train from Edinburgh, 1 hour and 20 minutes staring at a gorgeous coastline is no hardship at all. But for the V&A Dundee to truly work it has to be about more than wealthy visitors from out of town and the trickle down effect of spending money in the city even though this is of course important.
Are you going to see locals in a museum where the restaurant boasts London prices at £22.00 for a steak and £9.25 for a chargrilled chicken bagel? Are local families going to pay £12 for adults and £8 per child (5-12) at peak time weekends? (excludes £1 discount per ticket for booking advance online, 10% discount on a family booking, weekday tickets and off peak tickets are cheaper.) It would cost us, a family of 5 with no under 5s and a teen, £40.50 to visit the exhibition at the weekend including the 10% flexible family discount. I am pleased at least to see a picnic room for families to bring their own food.
This is why engagement, outreach, free family activities become so crucial. What concerns me is with such a huge overspend that financial concerns don’t hit the most important strand of what the V&A Dundee is and does – engagement.
I appreciate you need a ticketed gallery to bring in money but no reduction for locals even in the first 6 months is a huge shame. But, at the end of the day it is not what I think that counts. It is the locals that matter. What you notice in Dundee is what a young city it is. Walking around you see lots of students and lively chatter. There is a buzz and a belief that the V&A Dundee is a good thing. I spoke to a number of really welcoming locals and there is a hope that this is the start of something good for Dundee particularly riding on the crest of a wave of £1 billion investment in the Dundee waterfront. I can’t but agree.
If ever a museum should changes lives it is here and I am not talking about aspirations. People in Dundee have that, but opportunity that is what is lacking.
I hope the people of Dundee adopt the V&A name as their own. I talked at the start of how the project is billed as a ‘Living room for the City’. My fear is that it becomes the posh front room for guests and relatives that only visit once a year. It is not the living room you let the kids trash and spill juice over the carpet and smother in lego.
There are bright signs, including the Young People’s Collective a group of 16-24 year olds who help the museum reflect young people in their programme and curate events. The museum is not there to cure all of societies ills but if I was a resident seeing £80 million spent on a museum and feeling cuts to essential services then I would want the V&A Dundee to work bloody hard for me too, not just the tourists.
Without my analytical hat on I have loved my visit to Dundee and the beautiful architectural spaces of the new museum. It has been a long journey for so many people, an incredible amount of hard work, a searing vision and the V&A Dundee certainly deserves to do well, the city of Dundee deserves it too.
The last voice should be from the young guy I spoke to who sold me a coffee from a pop-up stall in the station. A marketing student born in Dundee, at the station over the opening weekend to make some money.
“I used to lie about where I came from. I never told people I came from Dundee. Now we’ve got the the V&A here I tell them I am from Dundee. I am definitely going to visit.”
For more details on opening times and ticket prices please see the website – https://www.vam.ac.uk/dundee
Whilst staying at Dundee I ate at the Castlehill Restaurant which I highly recommend! http://www.castlehillrestaurant.co.uk/
Reviews of the new V&A Dundee –