By Ferne Arfin 14 July 2019
Discovering the V&A Dundee
A London design institution heads north
That Dundee’s creative boosters managed to persuade the fabulous V&A Museum to take root for the first time outside of London in this small Scottish city is cause for celebration. The reputed £80 million spent on the museum, designed by star Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, that opened last September creates very high expectations. But does the new museum, Scotland’s first ever design museum live up to the hype, or does it still have some growing to do? We went along to find out.
An elderly man with a gruff Yorkshire accent approached the information desk, just inside the entrance of the new V&A Dundee, and living up to his Yorkshire reputation, he was blunt.
“Where’s the museum?” he demanded. “It says on the sign outside that there be a free museum in here. Where is it?!”
Following the COVID-19 lockdown, the V&A Dundee is set to reopen on August 27, 2020, with safety measures in place to protect both staff and public. Keep up to date on their website.
I have to admit that, to some degree I empathized with him. I’d had pretty much the same reaction to this striking addition to Dundee’s Tayside waterfront when I emerged from the shaded entrance passage into the lofty ground floor space. Facing the entrance a long (very long) flight of steps rose across an apparent reverse image of the outside of the building. But, beyond the building itself, where was the design that this museum was supposed to contain?
Lets focus on the positives first. The V&A Dundee has a lot to recommend it.
A splendid showcase of Scottish design
A lift or the grand staircase take you straight from the ground floor entrance level to the second floor (or what Americans, who count the ground level as 1, would consider the third floor) where the two main gallery areas are located. The highlight surely must be the Scottish Design Galleries. This series of rooms is arranged around Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Oak Room. It’s a long, narrow tea room that was saved from demolition in 1971 and stored in boxes since then. Rebuilt, piece by numbered piece, it demonstrates most of the decorative and structural features of this Scottish designer’s Glasgow-style. The exhibition – a room you walk through – is particularly poignant since the Oak Room is considered a prototype for Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece, the Glasgow Art School library, destroyed beyond restoration in a 2018 fire.
In the galleries that surround the Oak Room, curators have created stories from elements of Scottish innovation, art and design. They relate The History of Scottish Design, Design and Society, and Design for the Imagination. If you are of an academic bent, you’ll read everything and absorb these curated stories. But if you are like me, you’ll simply enjoy the variety of the objects with Scottish connections. They range from such everyday items as a pair of Hunter Wellies (the company is headquartered in Edinburgh) that you can “build” through an interactive display, to a breathtaking winged tiara made for the Scottish Duchess of Roxburghe in 1935. Amongst the rarities are a 15th century Book of Hours – an illuminated personal prayer book – made in Rouen but featuring Scottish saints, an indication that it was made for a Scottish owner. There are fashions by Alexander McQueen, iconic film costumes created by Scottish designers, an early kaleidoscope invented in Edinburgh in 1816, and a Vivienne Westwood suit made of Scottish tartan. You can examine Scottish silver or explore the making of The Beano, one of the world’s most popular children’s comics, still published in Dundee by DC Thompson. In all there are 300 objects illustrating the role of design in all levels of Scottish life as well as the Scotland’s design influence worldwide. As the V&A’s collection includes thousands of Scottish objects, there will be plenty of scope for the evolution of these galleries over time.
In the Scottish Galleries
The special exhibition galleries
Another, larger gallery area, also on the second floor, is currently being used to mount special exhibitions (for which there will usually be an admission charge). Some of them, like the Mary Quant show now on at the V&A in London, will move on to Dundee while others – we assume – will be mounted in Dundee or shared from other, international sources.
Currently, that space is being used for Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt, a ticketed exhibition that originated in London now expanded to include elements of Dundee’s own involvement in computer and video game studies. Dundee’s Abertay University is widely recognized as the world’s leading university in the disciplines outside the USA. Even if you’re not very involved with gaming, this is a show worth catching while you can (it’s on until September 8, 2019). I spent quite a while watching an installation about the video game Journey. Films alongside clips of the game showed how the designers traveled to sand dunes and snowy slopes to capture the movement of the materials and the way figures interacted with it. The actual game clips were mesmerizing as I hope you can see below.
So worth a special trip?
I would love to say yes. I’m a member of the V&A and a big supporter of the museum and what it does. And I also think that anything that brings more visitors to Dundee – a really pleasant small city, with a lot to offer – is worth support.
But the new V&A has its disappointments. Though soaring, the ground floor is actually rather small. There’s a cafe, the information desk and a shop with wonderful things, some created just for this museum. But I couldn’t escape an aimless feeling about that entry experience. There are no exhibits on this floor and nothing particularly interesting to look at beyond the puzzling “shingles” that cover the ground floor walls. Whatever they are made of, they look like gold stained plywood. At first, I thought they formed an amphitheater where visitors could sit and watch the passing scene or attend special events. But they are too steep for that and too flimsy besides. Apparently the reason they are too steep for interior seating is because they follow the contours of the external design. But surely the purpose of a building that houses a museum is to provide useful exhibition and activity spaces inside. At lot of what is going on inside just shows off the architecture.
And beyond the two gallery spaces, and a large second floor area devoted to a fine dining restaurant, other smaller exhibition spaces seem neglected. There is a Michelin Gallery, currently occupied by an exhibition about the design of prosthetic hands. It barely fills a corner along a bend at the end of a corridor. Two large, specially commissioned works – Maeve Redmond’s graphic arts installation, “Plain and Ornamental of Every Description” and “This, looped,” a work about creative decision making by Ciara Phillips – are surprisingly easy to overlook completely.
At the moment, this stunning building reminds me of a Japanese gift – less exciting inside than the beautiful, obsessively detailed wrappings would suggest.
But, to be fair, the museum, ten years in the planning, has only been opened since September 2018 – less than a year at this point. Its parent institution in London is 167 years ahead of the game. It’s early days. Given more time, and (nods to its boat-like prow) a bit more of a shakedown cruise, the new V&A Dundee will not doubt grow to fill its fabulous skin.
V&A Dundee Essentials
- Where – V&A Dundee, Riverside Esplanade, Dundee, DD1 4EZ
- When – Daily except Christmas and Boxing Day, 10a.m. to 5p.m. and to 9p.m. on Fridays
- Admission – Free except special exhibitions which may be ticketed
- Facilities – casual cafe and fine dining restaurant, education rooms, picnic room, shop. For extensive accessibility features and family services, see the website.