First look at V&A Dundee: how it will put the Scottish city on the map

The new Victoria and Albert Museum opens to the public this weekend – we explore the grand space, which looks to spotlight Scottish design while also holding its own among other cultural giants by showcasing national and international work.

As the V&A Dundee prepares to open its doors, local communities are not only looking forward to exploring Scotland’s first major building devoted to design, but also the impact it is expected to have on the city.

Just five years ago, Dundee was found to be one of the most deprived cities in Scotland, according to Government statistics. This was put down to many factors, including income and poverty levels, employment levels, access to education and healthcare, crime levels and the state of housing.

Since then, Dundee has developed a thriving cultural community, having been awarded UNESCO status as a City of Design in 2014, developed its own design festival, and been lauded for the success of the University of Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design – which was found last year to be the best place in the UK to study design.

Until now, places like Dundee have lost out to cities such as London, Manchester and fellow Scottish cultural giant Edinburgh, with talented graduates emigrating to those major UK creative hubs, which also dominate in terms of exhibitions, funding, festivals and events. Now, with the birth of the V&A, Dundee is expanding its cultural growth and making a mark for itself – and with this will no doubt come a boost in employment, tourism, funding and talent retention.

V&A has given Dundee a “renewed confidence”

© Hufton and Crow Photography

John Alexander, leader at the Dundee City Council, says the museum is already bringing a host of “tangible and intangible” benefits to the region. Speaking at the striking new building on River Tay waterfront, he says: “This institution, this building, has made a difference even before it has opened its doors.

“The renewed confidence, sense of pride and fire in the belly of ordinary Dundonians wasn’t there 10 years ago.

“For too long, the city has been seen as a poor relation to some of our larger and neighbouring cities, but that is no longer the case. Dundee is leading the charge with cultural-led regeneration, delivering results to each community in this city.”

Benefits to the city, according to the council, include a rise in tourism. To accommodate this, new hotels and restaurants have opened in the city, which are in turn expected to lead to economic benefits and new jobs, as well as an image improvement for Dundee as a place to “live, work and invest”.

Mike Galloway, director of city development at Dundee City Council, says: “When companies are looking to set up a new business, cultural facilities are often the determining factor of where they decide to go. I think in the past Dundee didn’t have the best image as a post-industrial city – now it is regarded as being on the up and we intend to maintain that.”

Designed by Kengo Kuma

© Hufton and Crow Photography

Opening to the public on 15 September, the museum designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma intends to “reconnect” Dundee to the River Tay as well as its maritime past, as part of a £1bn waterfront redevelopment. Resembling a Scottish cliff and mainly made from concrete walls holding pre-cast, rough stone panels, it is shaped like two twisting, inverted, pyramids with an archway through the centre and water pools linking it to the river.

Branded as a “living room” for the city, visitors enter a large lobby area surrounded by sloped wooden panelled walls, with a shop and café on the ground floor. Materials used include oak, Irish limestone floors and wall panels made of medium-density fibreboard (MDF) with oak veneers in “natural” colours, designed to be “soft”, “relaxing” and “welcoming”.

The Scottish Design Galleries and a second space for temporary exhibitions are upstairs, along with as a series of education rooms and auditoriums, a “designers in residence” studio, a restaurant and a book shelf filled with design publications. There is also a sun-soaked terrace overlooking the river.

Scottish Design Galleries look to inspire local people

© Hufton and Crow Photography

Scottish Design Galleries, the permanent, free exhibition, features roughly 300 objects and pieces which relate to or are influenced by Scottish design ranging from the 1500s to the present. They come from the V&A collection in London, Scottish museums, external companies and contemporary designers.

Meredith More, a curator at V&A Dundee, says: “This is really the only gallery where Scottish design is considered in its own right. There are lots of places you can go to see Scottish art or history, but this particular story is quite unique.

“It was really important to us to show a huge breadth of types of design, so if you’re interested in architecture there is something for you here, as well as fashion, furniture, product, medical design…”

More hopes the space will become somewhere for people from Dundee and beyond to reflect on Scotland’s past achievements, see current trends, and spark inspiration and debate for the future.

She says a lot of “contemporary content” is included, partly to help young people see that “there are lots of careers in design.”

Scottish design split into three parts

© Hufton and Crow Photography

Lucy Clark, senior associate architect and designer at ZMMA Architects, which has designed the Scottish Design Galleries, says the three parts of the gallery space each have “different atmospheres, colours, materials, and feels about them”.

The first space looks at influences on Scottish design, be those historical, geographical, based on trade and industry, or design processes and ways of working.

Second is design and society, which includes medical, industrial and architectural objects, exploring how design aims to improve lives.

The third looks at design and imagination, exploring film, theatre, illustration and more.

The Oak Room, a tearoom originally designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, can also be found in these galleries, positioned to create a “sense of surprise” as you don’t know it’s coming, according to Clark.

“What’s interesting about the whole Dundee project is it is underpinned by an idea of trying to show people the potential for design,” Clark adds. “Particularly older children, people who might be thinking ‘What do I do with my life?’ [We want to] say to them design is a viable option, design is not just what you think it is, it’s all these other things as well.”

Bring Dundee in line with other Scottish cities

She believes the new museum is “key to bringing Dundee into the triangle of great Scottish cities,” along with Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Co-directors of Dundee-based design studio, Agency of None, Lyall Bruce and Ryan McLeod, who designed light and sound installations for the museum’s launch cultural event 3D festival, say the museum may help “retain” design talent and attract people back to Dundee.

Bruce says: “A lot of people have stayed around in Dundee who would have left otherwise and others have come back here because of this [new museum]. People like to see the city as being ambitious.”

McLeod adds: “It has put a focal point on the city. People will now look beyond the traditional things that Dundee is known for, such as computer games and fashion. There are all these other assets of the design community in the city and it will definitely help put a spotlight on those.”

Director of the V&A Dundee, Philip Long, says the museum aims to “help people understand why design is so important in all our lives.”

Blockbuster London shows to travel

Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, is the museum’s first temporary exhibition in the second gallery space, sitting on the same floor as the Scottish Design Galleries, which explores the “golden age” of ocean travel from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Originally exhibited at London’s V&A, More explains why the show, created by exhibition design studio Casson Mann, was chosen: “One of the ambitions for this museum was to be able to bring some of the V&A’s amazing, big blockbuster shows up to Scotland and there has never been an exhibition space in Scotland big enough to allow this before.

“With Ocean Liners specifically, a lot of [the ships] were built in Scotland. Design and engineering in terms of ship building is a really important part of Scotland’s history so it was really appropriate to bring the show here.”

More could not reveal future exhibitions at the time of publishing, but has promised a “really exciting and varied programme”, with some shows created specifically for the Dundee space.

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