Director of new V&A Dundee believes the city can become "a major cultural hub"

The £80m V&A Dundee will open on the city's waterfront in September - the first site addition to the design museum. 

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For the sixth year in a row, Scotland has outperformed the rest of the United Kingdom outside of London in terms of numbers of visitors to its tourist attractions. According to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA), while 17 of the top 25 spots for 2017-18 were in London – including the British Museum, the Tate Modern and National Gallery – five of the remaining eight draws were located north of the border. Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle and Scottish National Gallery took the 11th, 12th and 16th places on the list respectively. Glasgow’s Riverside transport museum and the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum came in at 22nd and 24th. 

And the latest figures announced by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) further confirm that holidaying in Scotland is in vogue. The combined number of domestic and overseas tourists increased by two per cent last year, taking the tally to 14.1m. Scotland’s population is around 5.3m, which means there are now approximately 2.5 tourists for every resident in the country. During an interview with the Daily Telegraph in January, VisitScotland’s chief executive Malcolm Roughhead credited the boom to “increased air capacity” and “a favourable exchange rate”.

Whatever the reason, the director of the forthcoming V&A Dundee, Philip Long, says: “It makes sense that we capitalise on it.” Where Edinburgh and Glasgow “already have very strong arts and culture offerings”, he adds, Dundee aims to “follow suit with its own world-class design museum”. 

V&A Dundee, due to open its doors to the public on 15th September in a stunning building situated on the bank of the River Tay, was designed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and was inspired by the cliffs of east Scotland. It will be the first institution outside of London to operate under the Victoria and Albert banner; and even without the size and scale of the main V&A base in Kensington, it will, Long says, “give more weight to the idea that Dundee can be a major cultural hub.”

The project, a joint venture between Dundee’s city council, its two universities (the University of Dundee and Abertay University), Scottish Enterprise, and of course, the main V&A itself, is estimated to cost £80m to complete. “The idea was first being touted around 2007,” explains Long. “An ambition was set out for a new design museum that would help change the understanding of design in this country, and that would also play a part in Dundee’s remarkable redevelopment on the waterfront.” 

Long says that his own extensive background in the arts readies him for his new role at V&A Dundee. After studying visual art at Lancaster University as an undergraduate, he then completed an MA in gallery studies at Essex University. He spent five years working at The Fine Art Society in Glasgow, and 20 years for the National Galleries of Scotland, the parent body of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Scottish National Gallery, where he eventually became a senior curator. This, Long says, informs this enthusiasm for “lessons in life”. He explains: “Museums and galleries are wonderful places that people can go to without limitation. It’s a great opportunity to celebrate achievements in invention and design. They are an opportunity to discuss our past and how it can help to shape our future. That’s what I want for Dundee.” 

And Dundee could perhaps do with a boost to its artistic scene after the UK’s decision to leave the European Union meant it was no longer eligible compete for the European Capital of Culture title in 2023. “Dundee had been working hard towards that goal, but Brexit means it’s not to be.” 

V&A Dundee will focus on fashion, architecture, product design, graphic arts and photography. The annual running costs for V&A Dundee will be met from Scottish Government funding, contributions from founding partners, and self-generated income and private fundraising.

So, why was Dundee chosen as the location for the new V&A over other Scottish cities? “I’d like to think that the city chose the V&A, not the other way around. Dundee wasn’t one of several places shortlisted as a potential venue; the process was much more organic than that. The V&A already had a close relationship with the University of Dundee, because of the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, which is linked to it. There was a suggestion that Dundee would be a perfect city in which to open a new V&A and that sparked the remarkable series of events that have led us to now.” 

How much of a part did the historical context of Dundee play in the decision? “It was massive,” Long says, “because from a Dundee perspective, it’s a city that’s undergoing a fantastic transformation. It was a world-leading centre for the production of jute and was renowned for its shipbuilding industry and skills. But it lost a lot of its leading industries in the 20th century and now it’s working hard to change its fortunes. The redevelopment on the waterfront is a key driver for that. Education and cultural offerings were recognised by the local authorities as important catalysts for change. Also, V&A saw Dundee as an opportunity to internationalise and expand its ambitions.” 

V&A Dundee, Long insists, “will not simply be Kensington’s outpost. It is a new idea and a new institution for people to discover and explore. At the same time, it benefits from the support and expertise of the V&A in Kensington. When people visit us, they will find the same extraordinary standard they have come to expect from the V&A brand, but with a fresh range of exhibitions too.”

V&A Dundee’s first major exhibition – Ocean Liners: Speed and Style – will run from 15th September 2018 to 24th February 2019 and, according to Long, will “celebrate Scotland’s huge contributions to the shipbuilding industry”. Exploring the design and cultural impact of ocean liners, the exhibition will focus on their promotion, engineering, interior design and the glamorous on-board lifestyle attached to them. Items on display as part of the exhibition include the Christian Dior suit worn by Marlene Dietrich when the German actress arrived in New York aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth in December 1950.

Long claims that V&A Dundee represents “a world-class asset in waiting” and is confident that it will be a “worthwhile investment not just for Dundee, but for Scottish tourism in general”. A programme of audience research with Scotinform anticipates that the number of visitors for the attraction will be 350,000 on average annually, and 500,000 in the first 12 months. There are 785,000 people living within a 60-minute drive of the waterfront and a further 1.5m able to get there inside 90 minutes. “The core catchment area,” Long says, “only looks set to grow as the population of Scotland does too.”

He adds: “V&A Dundee definitely aims to tap into a sense of local pride, and that local audience will stem from it as a result, but we’ve also got our eye on huge international markets too. We will also target specific interest groups such as designers, schools, universities and colleges, and those interested in a career in design.”

What are the long-term hopes for Dundee’s tourism offering, then? Could it aim to compete alongside Edinburgh and Scotland in the future? Long responds: “I’d be wary of that wording. I don’t like to say ‘compete’. I would prefer ‘complement’. We want to add to them, not replace them. Dundee is reinventing itself as a destination through an exciting combination of culture and creativity. V&A Dundee is key to this aim.” 

Ultimately, Long says, “there are many reasons for visitors to come to Scotland… the Highland landscape and the romance associated with it is one. Edinburgh and Glasgow have got a great cultural offering, but now Dundee needs to step up too. It has perhaps not been an obvious place to visit in the past, but I’m confident that the V&A will give it the power to become one soon.”

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman