A new Victoria & Albert museum – which looks part-opulent ocean liner and part-craggy cliff face – has opened in the Scottish city of Dundee. The first V&A outside London and the first dedicated design museum in Scotland threw open its doors last weekend with a free two-day festival of music, dance and sound-and-light installations.
Despite its familiar name the new institution will not merely be an outpost of the world-renowned West London museum. Philip Long, the Dundee museum's director said: "We are an organisation born here in Dundee and created with the city's two universities, the city council and Scottish Enterprise."
It was the University of Dundee which first suggested a new V&A as a further draw for investment in a city regenerating itself through design, technology and video gaming. However, the Dundee museum will work closely with the London V&A and use the South Kensington museum's world-class collections and its curatorial skills and expertise.
For a city of barely 150,000 people on the east coast of Scotland, which has only recently started to emerge from decades of post-industrial unemployment and social strife, this has been a long journey, with delays and budget rises. Now that it is here however, the project is a major achievement and a source of pride. Leader of Dundee City Council, John Alexander, said: "This building has made a difference even before opening its doors in intangible and tangible ways." On the tangible front, overnight stays in the city have increased almost 10 per cent in the year to April but the intangibles were just as important, he said. "It has put a fire in the belly of Dundonians."
Housed in an £80 million (Dh384m) waterfront building by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, and part of a wider and ongoing £1 billion regeneration scheme, the museum has cultural and urban ambitions. With an angular prow jutting out into the mighty Firth of Tay, an arch which goes through the musuem's heart "to activate the flow of people in and around the building" and 2,429 pre-cast concrete fins which create a textured skin and captivating shadows against the darker concrete behind, the main idea was to "reconnect the city with nature and the river," says Kuma.
Inside things are, if anything, more inspiring. A cavernous entrance leads to a soaring and airy atrium which houses a café and bookshop. A long staircase wraps along one side of the building which looks and feels like a promenade. Dramatic angled walls are lined with timber panels and the floor and staircase with a dark blue Irish limestone filled with fossil details which bring to mind a seabed. A low-lying angled window shows the water lapping at the building's edges or the sandy shores when the tide is out.
On the upper floor two large gallery spaces house the museum's major temporary exhibitions and the permanent Scottish Design Galleries. A smaller open central space will also host exhibitions and there is a restaurant with views out to the water and the famous RSS Discovery, designed to conquer Antarctica, as well as swooping views to the buzzing atrium below. "The sense of scale you get in this space is unlike anything that exists in Scotland," says Simon Meek, the museum's first artist in residence, who plans to use the building in future multimedia works.
The jewel in the museum's crown is undoubtedly its Scottish Design Galleries which display about 300 objects made in Scotland or by Scots around the world over the past 500 years. They shine a light on a remarkable but not always well-known design legacy and bring it up to the present day with commissions by established and emerging Scottish artists and designers. To create the galleries, the curators scoured the V&A collections and others around the world. They found thousands of objects which they then categorised into themes, such as the local and global, the way design can improve lives and a section on storytelling, performance and play.
The objects are at once surprising and familiar, and run the gamut from fashion, furniture and architecture to wearable medical devices and tech. Some are displayed in glass cases, including an oversized and attractive cabinet of curiosities, but others are exposed so visitors can reach out and touch them.
Highlights include a collection of kaleidoscopes, an optical gadget first created in Edinburgh in 1816 and a pair of Hunter wellington boots which are part of the story of vulcanised rubber – a material pioneered by the North British Rubber company in Edinburgh in the 19th century.
There is also a striking geometric yet elephant-shaped promotional case designed for Kirkcaldy-based lino company Nairn Floors by Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi in the 1970s that highlights the importance of this easy-to-clean and hard-wearing material which revolutionised women's lives from the late 1800s.
“Whether it was to do with natural resources or education or to do with trade links and port access, there were many influences brought into Scotland but there was also a huge exporting of Scottish ideas and products,” says Joanna Norman, who is Director of the V&A Research Institute and Lead Curator of the Scottish Design Galleries.
Accordingly, a large section focuses on Scotland as a textile manufacturing powerhouse in the 19th century and the numerous items it made out of flax from the Baltic states and the Netherlands, and later out of jute from India.
When flax was hard to come by, the linen-making factories in Dundee discovered that whale oil (which was readily available because of the whaling industry) could help soften jute fibres, explains Norman. “They were able to adapt all their linen-making technology and processes and apply them to jute. Adaptation to change is another big theme that runs through these galleries.”
Dundee's most recent adaptation – to digital technology in all its forms – is documented through items such as the Lemmings videogame, created in the early 90s by Dundee-based David Jones of Grand Theft Auto fame, and a more troubling game called Killbox which explores the consequences of drone warfare.
Arguably the most moving exhibit is the reassembled tea room created by Glasgow-born architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1907 which has found a permanent home here. Conserved for almost 50 years by Glasgow City Council, and now beautifully restored, it's dark-stained oak panels, coloured glass inserts and gold- and-purple pendant lights made out of mouth-blown glass create a total interior universe.
The museum's first temporary exhibition is Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, which some will know already from its recent stints at V&A London and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
It was selected for its Scottish connection: a fifth of the world’s luxury ocean liners were built in Scotland, mainly on the River Clyde in Glasgow.
But, as Long also says: "A huge investment of scholarship and work goes into these big shows. The V&A Dundee now means far more people will see the Ocean Liners exhibition in the UK and beyond."
In the future, the museum will collaborate with design institutions around the world as well as the V&A in London to create exhibitions, but it will also put on its own.
“It’s very clear to me that you need to be able to generate your own programme and ideas, a museum absolutely needs that intellectual currency,” says Long. “And the exhibitions we develop may well go to London.”
The V&A Dundee has arrived and already made its presence very much felt.
For more information on the V&A Dundee, please visit https://www.vam.ac.uk/dundee/