New Victoria and Albert Museum on the Dundee waterfront

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?!”

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?

Entrance to the V&A Dundee

Wood “shingles” that look a bit like recycled New England barn siding line the entrance lobby and the entire central area of the museum.

Detail of the exterior of the new V&A Dundee

Japanese architect Kengo Kuma’s statement design for the V&A Dundee.

Lets focus on the positives first. The V&A Dundee has a lot to recommend it.

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.
  • Website  

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Pinterest poster for V&A Dundee

6 replies
  1. Kathryn Burrington
    Kathryn Burrington says:

    I’d love to see the Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Oak Room but I’m not so sure about the wellies! As it’s free I’d definitely pop by if I were in the area not sure I’d travel that far to see it though.

    Reply
    • Ferne Arfin
      Ferne Arfin says:

      I know what you mean. But there is a lot to recommend Dundee as a short break destination. Some more fascinating attractions I’ll be writing about soon.

      Reply
  2. Stasha Healy
    Stasha Healy says:

    Even with the middling review, I’m intrigued to visit, as the architecture seems compelling and I’m interested in Scottish culture. Fantastic that it’s free. I visited the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi last year and found the architecture inspiring and the contents less so, although the objects on display are encyclopedic

    Reply
    • Ferne Arfin
      Ferne Arfin says:

      Oh it’d definitely worth a visit. Just be aware that half the museum is devoted to temporary exhibitions and those usually (but not always) require the purchase of a ticket. I’ll be posting a few more pictures of the contents to the Scottish Design Galleries soon, so do pop round in a day or two to see some more.

      Reply

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