Design for Life: The V&A Dundee

After years in the making, the ambitious V&A Dundee will open its doors this month, changing the Dundee cityscape for good. Philip Long fills us in ahead of the grand opening

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 11 Sep 2018

A major institutional landmark devoted to culture doesn’t come about all that often these days, so it’s with huge anticipation and excitement that the V&A Dundee opens its doors this month after years of aspiration, planning, ambition, and – of course – design. And design is exactly what the multi-million-pound development will promote and exhibit to local and international audiences for its long life ahead. To mark the occasion, we caught up with the museum's director, Philip Long, who has been leading the project since 2011.

On first finding out about the V&A Dundee, it would be reasonable enough to wonder what made Dundee the prime candidate for the V&A to open its first ever museum outside of London. More than that, what made the V&A consider this kind of project in the first place? To begin to answer both questions, Long puts it plainly: “Dundee in many ways chose the V&A.” Expanding further, he says: “It came about as a consequence of the redevelopment of the city and particularly the waterfront. With that, came a strong desire to make a cultural presence on the waterfront. What was becoming increasingly clear was the importance of culture as part of the life of the city and the opportunities it could offer.” Here, Long cites the ongoing success of Dundee Contemporary Arts, the Dundee Rep Theatre and Scottish Dance Theatre.

For Long, there are multiple lineages that brought around the V&A Dundee as a concept. He cites, for example, the Tate Liverpool as an important predecessor of major cultural institutions seeking in earnest to expand access beyond their capital city locations. Long finds in these projects an indispensable attention being given to cities that face large-scale economic and social barriers to prosperity. “That was only one part of a much wider policy to make sure that Liverpool didn’t stagnate. It is a much more recent phenomenon that cultural centres within the major population centres have taken the initiative not to be associated purely with those places. There are numbers of ways that could be done.”

Taking this point on how famous cultural institutions in major population centres attempt to extend their reach and coverage, he cites ambitious programmes that place work across the country. In particular, he reflects on more unique styles of expanding access, like the Artist Rooms collaboration between National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate collection (a project which Llong ran from 2007 to 2011). Since 2009, Artist Rooms has set up exhibitions across the length and breadth of the country, showing the most influential and important artistic figures of the last century in smaller institutions that would not otherwise be able to access works by the internationally renowned artists involved. Following a substantial acquisition of works, for Lon,g it was a matter of urgency that the new collections immediately had the broadest possible reach, circulated beyond the usual channels, and reached audiences that may never have seen works by the most renowned figures of recent art history.

The new V&A Dundee is driven by this same commitment to ensure collections are experienced by and inspire populations outside London or other international capitals. However, there is a concomitant responsibility to involve local communities and encourage a sense of ownership by the people of Dundee.

Long describes the excitement of the V&A to have a new location and space outside of London, but acknowledges that this raises the question: “How do you make sense of all of that in the local community? One of the responsibilities we have felt as V&A Dundee is that you cannot just be an institution that lands from outer space into Dundee. From the beginning, it thus needs to be a place that is rooted in the city and the region, and that people are involved in helping formulate. We’ve worked hard to do that through a whole range of learning programmes that have got the project out into the community and more widely across Scotland.” This not only has increased awareness and understanding of the new museum, but increased understanding of design and the opportunities therein.

Expanding the idea of the social reach of the collection, one of the major threads of the initial programme of the V&A Dundee is Design and Society. This collection showcases “how design influences and shapes the places we live and the way we live our lives”, considering design as a method of problem-solving and community transformation. For example, one of the objects that is part of this section of the museum is Snap40, a wearable device that “use artificial intelligence to monitor a hospital patient’s vital signs”, reducing observation of vital signs from a two-hour task for a nurse, to two minutes.

For Long, this part of the museum will demonstrate through a variety of objects from various periods that “designers’ consciousness about the effect design has on society is not new. When you come to see the display, you will see the contribution that designers have made on how to shape the world around us.” He thinks in particular of James Craig designing the New Town in Edinburgh in the second half of the 18th century, which eased the very poor living conditions in the middle of Edinburgh. He considers, too, the slums of Glasgow, and figures like Thomas Annan (1827-99) whose photographic practice motivated reform through heightened public awareness of terrible living conditions, and the lesser-known work of renowned Glasgow architect Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson in creating solutions to the overcrowding and low quality housing stock. “Designers don’t only find solutions to challenging circumstances, they see where there are problems.”

For Long, designers thus make a contribution “to making a better world, that is fairer, safer and provides greater opportunity.” Not only demonstrating this important work through the objects shown, the V&A Dundee is itself an ambitious object of social design by Tokyo-based architect Kengo Kuma. For Long, the museum must be “a place for everyone, that provides the facilities and environment where people can discuss, have fun and be involved in opportunities.” Kuma himself coined the phrase “a living room for the city”, which Long uses to describe this intention.

Looking at the scale and unique design of the building, it’s safe to say that the entire sense and shape of the city has been changed indelibly by the new V&A Dundee. “It’s something that symbolises a new confidence and the ability to get things done in quite a modest-sized city compared to Edinburgh and Glasgow. It will attract attention, interest and new investment to the city from around the world.” Long also considers the re-connection of the city to the river, which it had lost in the 1960s during the loss of industry. Long speaks with a sense of the V&A Dundee’s place within a greater constellation of efforts to bring prosperity and new confidence to the city of Dundee. “The V&A Dundee is not the answer to all of the challenges that Dundee faces… There are many people from many different fields with a responsibility to carry on addressing those. V&A Dundee can contribute a sense of optimism and desire to invest, and that creates great new value in the city for its population."

Opening 15 September, Free, Mon-Sun 10am-5pm