Can the new V&A turn Dundee into an alternative city break destination?
It would be grossly inaccurate to say that Dundee is not already on the map. You only have to look at the lay-out of the east coast of Scotland, and you can see it. Indeed, it is impossible not to. Once you have located the Firth of Tay – the second of the great estuaries which cleave a path through the country’s right-hand side (the other, the Forth is immediately to the south) – you cannot fail to spot it, a port on the north bank of a celebrated river, its eyes gazing out towards the world rather than inland and into itself. Nonetheless, the announcement of a launch date for the city’s next cultural landmark is a shining of a spotlight onto Scotland’s fourth biggest city.
The V&A Dundee (vandadundee.org), it has been revealed, will open on September 15 – and will make history. It will be the first institution outside London pinned to the famous name of the “Victoria & Albert Museum” – and even if it will not have the size and scale of the mothership in Kensington, it will give fresh weight to the idea of Dundee as a destination. Indeed, this is partially the point. “Such a highly-regarded attraction has the potential to transform local tourism, and will undoubtedly draw visitors from far and wide,” says Malcolm Roughead of Visit Scotland. “There is a real sense of excitement and anticipation in the region.”
In terms of content, the new arrival will not veer too far from the V&A template. Due to cost a reputed £80 million by the time it opens (a figure which will make it the most expensive gallery ever in Scotland), it will focus primarily on fashion, architecture, design and photography. Its first exhibition – Ocean Liners: Speed & Style (September 15 2018-February 24 2019) – will home in on the glamour of the great sea-going ships more than the mechanics of their movement. It will, the museum promises, “explore the design and cultural impact of ocean liners on an international scale, focusing on their promotion, engineering, interior design, as well as the lifestyle on board”. Items on display will include the Christian Dior suit worn by Marlene Dietrich when the German actress arrived in New York aboard the Queen Elizabeth in December 1950.
Of course, an inaugural exhibition with such a subject should also be seen as what it clearly is – a nod to Dundee’s shipbuilding heritage. Not that the museum is shy of a nautical metaphor. Its very shape is a salute to what was, in the 19th century, the city’s prime industry – it resembles a ship under construction on the dockside. Its credentials are impressive. It has been designed by Japanese architects Kengo Kuma & Associates. It is also Kuma’s first project in the UK, at a time when he is in demand – he is currently midway through crafting the stadium for the 2020 (summer) Olympic Games, in Tokyo.
It is not difficult to look at the outline of V&A Dundee and detect a certain borrowing of inspiration from Titanic Belfast – the loving tribute to the doomed liner in the city which built it. Also designed to resemble a great ocean-going vessel, the museum has done much to help regenerate the waterfront in the capital of Northern Ireland since it opened in 2012, and it will be hoped that the new V&A has a similar effect on Dundee.
The city could, perhaps, use the boost – at least on an artistic level. Dundee was one of five UK cities contending to be the British candidate for European Capital of Culture in 2023, and had been working hard on its bid (you can see the evidence at dundee2023.eu) – until the news broke last November that, thanks to the Brexit process, Britain is no longer able to be part of Europe’s showpiece artistic bonanza. The V&A should be more than adequate compensation – a new permanent museum is likely to be as much a boon to tourism in the city as a single year in continental focus. The joy, too, is that it will come sooner. September 15 is a mere eight months away…
Four other reasons to visit Dundee Can’t wait for V&A Dundee to open? These attractions are already there…
An extinct volcano? Next to the Tay? Why yes. Dundee Law is what remains of a fire-breathing peak which once helped to shape the Scottish landmass. Firmly stable terrain for as long as there has been human life in the area, it has been, according to archaeological evidence, inhabited for some 3,500 years. Now topped by a memorial to the Dundonian dead of the First World War, it provides gorgeous views of the estuary.
One city, two teams
Dundee, as any pub-quiz aficionado knows, is a keeper of a piece of British football lore. It is the only city in the country to have two professional clubs based on the same road. Both Dundee and Dundee United are located on Sandeman Street in the north of the city, and are but a fifth of a mile and three minutes’ walking time apart. Dundee United (dundeeunitedfc.co.uk) runs tours of its Tannadice ground (free; donation appreciated).
Dundee’s ties to the noble art of shipbuilding are also enshrined in the RRS Discovery (rrsdiscovery.com; from £9.25). Constructed in the city between 1900 and 1901, this was the vessel which carried Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott on the Discovery Expedition – the first official British exploration jaunt to Antarctica of the 20th century (1901-1904). After the best part of 90 years’ service in various guises, Discovery returned to her home port as a museum ship in 1986 and was slotted into a custom-built dock on the Tay in 1992.
Tay Rail Bridge
One of the most iconic British engineering feats, this near-three-mile marvel cuts across the estuary in striking fashion. It has a dark back-story too. The current bridge, created between 1883 and 1887, is the second to straddle the gap – the first, built a decade earlier, was (notoriously) destroyed by high winds on December 28 1879, leading to the deaths of 75 people on a train which was crossing at just the wrong moment. Its replacement has withstood the worst of the weather with rather more steadfastness. Hop across, and you can play golf in St Andrews – a 14-mile, half-hour train ride south.