This week sees the opening of the V&A Dundee. Unlike the Louvre, which has established an outpost in Abu Dhabi, Kengo Kuma’s building is gracing a city that, until recently, few would have regarded as a key destination.
An hour by train from Edinburgh on Scotland’s north east coast, you catch sight of it as you arrive over the Tay Bridge. Jutting out across the waterfront, a collation of geometric angles, it’s Kuma’s first building in the UK. And the first time that the V&A has opened a museum outside London in the U.K.
‘I was inspired by the cliffs of north-eastern Scotland,’ Kuma said at the opening on Thursday. But his building’s shape also references Scotland’s shipbuilding history, complementing the RRS Discovery, used for Ernest Shackleton’s first polar expedition in 1901-4, that’s moored in the building’s shadow
The museum’s slightly Brutalist exterior – get close up and you can see the pre-cast concrete slabs – is much softer inside. Clad in overlapping panels of oak veneer, the main hall soars to the ceiling. Windows, like portholes, parcel up views of the water, allowing visitors to see the tides of the Tay ebb and flow. ‘It is,’ says Kuma, ‘designed to be Dundee’s living room and part of the community’. The main gallery will be free to enter, temporary exhibitions will attract a charge.
On the top floor, alongside the galleries, the Tatha Bar and Kitchen looks out onto the Tay and the farmland of Fife beyond, strong on local produce, including unfiltered beer. There’s an outdoor terrace for those who like to be a bit windblown. (This part of Scotland, close to the golf courses of St Andrews and Carnoustie, is known for its wind).
A valid criticism is that impact and sense of scale comes at the cost of display space. Of 12,000 objects in the V&A archives that had a Scottish connection, just 300 have been chosen to be put on display in the DM Brown gallery, which covers 550 square meters.
They are varied, ranging from a traditional Fair Isle jumper to an ornate Robert Adam fireplace. Some items are a temporary loan, such as Natalie Portman’s costume from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Others come from the V&A’s own collection. One highlight is the installation of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Oak Room cafe, which has been in storage for nearly 50 years.
A larger space – 1,100 square meters – is devoted to temporary exhibitions. The first, Ocean Liners Speed and Style originated at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum. Part of the aim for the V&A is to give space to exhibitions that would not otherwise come to the UK.
Hampered by losing its traditional industries, including shipbuilding, jute manufacture and jams, Dundee is ripe for some culture-led regeneration. It’s a young city, one in seven of the population are students, points out the chair of Dundee City Council John Alexander, himself only 30.
It houses two universities and a thriving video games industry – Grand Theft Auto was created in the city in 1997. (Creator Dave Jones is still based in Dundee.) It’s one of the reasons why there’s a strong video art element to the museum; Simon Meek is the V&A’s first designer-in residence.
Director of V&A Dundee Philip Long says: ‘We wanted to look at how Scotland’s creativity has impacted the world, we wanted to look at the processes of design and how design affects the world around us. Finally, we wanted to look at how design is used as a means of expressing creativity. Every object in there tells a bigger story.’
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