Charles Rennie Mackintosh's oak room has been reconstructed in the museum

V&A Dundee

Sally-Anne Huxtable, Issue 118/11, p56-61, 01.11.2018
The bold architecture of this new museum certainly makes a statement, but what is on offer inside? Sally-Anne Huxtable finds out
The vision and ambition behind V&A Dundee is palpable in the striking building designed by Kengo Kuma and Associates. There is no denying that, despite a bumpy start, which included the revision of ambitious plans that would have located the building in, rather than beside, the River Tay, the Japanese architecture firm’s creation is an arresting sight on the banks of the river. It is a monument to what is good about contemporary architecture.

The building, which aims to evoke the sea cliffs of the north-east coast of Scotland, is uncompromising in its celebration of its materials and construction; in many ways it is a contemporary take on brutalism. The edifice rises out of the water like a mighty hulk ship covered in concrete ribs.

The interior is handsome, too. A huge light-filled atrium is decorated with oak slats that echo the lines of the concrete ribs outside, and the addition of black marble floors with white fossilised coral is an ode to the power of nature. The ground floor, with its sloping sides, has been given over to ticket desks, a cafe and an excellent shop full of Scottish products, and has been designed to act as “a living room for the city” – a slogan proudly displayed on tote bags.
 
But it feels as if the museum has missed a trick here. It could have followed the example of the Design Museum in London or the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona and designed the sloping sides with seating, either for visitors to rest and feel part of the building, or for special events. There isn’t much of a living room feeling or scope to host events for the community and entice new audiences.

Scottish design focus

The first floor is divided into various rooms and offices; a bright, modern restaurant that looks out over another tourist attraction, Shackleton and Scott’s 1901 Antarctic expedition ship the RRS Discovery; and a terrace with wonderful views of the Firth of Tay. This floor also has temporary exhibition galleries – the Michelin Gallery and the Scottish Design Gallery, which includes the reconstruction of an oak room that was designed by the architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1907.

The temporary exhibition space is currently hosting a superb exhibition, Ocean Liners, which was previously on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. The gallery is huge, at 1,100 sq metres, but flexible in that it can be divided for smaller exhibitions. Ocean Liners is atmospheric as well as beautifully curated, designed and interpreted – a wholly fitting first exhibition for a former shipbuilding city.

Perhaps less successful is the Scottish Design Gallery which, although an admirable endeavour, feels constrained by a lack of space. The 300 objects featured here would benefit from more room to breathe and to create stronger dialogues between themselves.

Given the restrictions, the curators have sensibly opted for a thematic, rather than chronological, display exploring three topics – the story of Scottish design, design and society, and design and the imagination – but it isn’t always clear where the sections begin and end.

In addition, the gallery claims to look at Scottish design from 1500 to the present, but most objects are post-1800. Nonetheless, there are some stellar objects and designers, including a celebration of the 1817 David Brewster-designed kaleidoscope, a clever projection of the fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s 2006 Widows of Culloden runway show, a winged tiara that belonged to Mary Crewe-Milnes, the Duchess  of Roxburghe, and a traditional Orkney chair.

A few misfires include a case titled “Design and Identity”, which runs perilously close to tartan and shortbread Scottish tourism territory, and the font on the labels being sometimes difficult to read. I did, however, enjoy the imaginative table of “touch objects” in the gallery.

An “inspiration wall” dominates the Scottish Design Gallery, but the constraints of space don’t give visitors any room to step back and view the objects. As a result, some of the works that are placed higher on the wall are a little lost, including the Scottish artist Geoffrey Mann’s mesmerising glass piece from 2005, Attracted To Light, the embroiderer Ann Macbeth’s glorious 1901 Let Glasgow Flourish banner and the Scottish architect Basil Spence’s modernist Allegro armchair. The placement of labels in this section also means that it is sometimes hard to identify the objects.

The space constraints seem largely due to the inclusion of the reconstructed Mackintosh tea room, which sits at the heart of   the gallery. The low lighting and dark wood, and the decision not to include any furniture, conspire to make it feel dark and lifeless. It also jars a little that so much space has been devoted to Mackintosh, but no works by his partner in life and design, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, have been included.

Fine designs

In between the temporary exhibition space and the Scottish Design Gallery is the spacious Michelin Gallery. Here, visitors can view an innovative ceramic model of the new electric Jaguar car, the I-Pace. There is also a site-specific commission titled This, Looped, by the Scottish Turner Prize-nominated artist Ciara Phillips, which celebrates making and do-it-yourself design. This space includes the results of the Scottish Design Relay project, which displays design prototypes developed by young people in five Scottish towns.

As a franchise of the V&A, rather than an arm of the organisation itself, V&A Dundee is in a great position to bring something new and much-needed to the cultural and heritage field in Scotland, as well as avoid being perceived as an imposition of ideas from London. The museum has the potential to be a wonderful boon not only to Dundee, but to Scotland as a whole, and I hope that it achieves its objectives.

Sally-Anne Huxtable is the principal curator of modern and contemporary design at National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh

Project data

  • Cost £80m
  • Main funders Scottish government; UK government; National Lottery; Heritage Lottery Fund; Creative Scotland
  • Founding partners Victoria and Albert Museum; University of Dundee; Abertay University; Scottish Enterprise
  • Delivery Design Dundee Limited
  • Architect Kengo Kuma and Associates
  • Project architect Maurizio Mucciola
  • Project management Turner & Townsend
  • Delivery architect PiM.studio Architects
  • Executive architect James F Stephen Architects
  • Structural/maritime and civil engineer Arup
  • Mechanical, electrical, fire and acoustic engineer Arup
  • Facade engineer Arup
  • Lighting Arup
  • Landscape architect Optimised Environments (OPEN)
  • Wayfinding and signage Cartlidge Levene
  • Principal design Kengo Kuma and Associates; PiM.studio Architects
  • Principal designer adviser C-MIST
  • DDA consultants C-MIST; James F Stephen Architects
  • Cafe, restaurant and retail design Lumsden Design

Scottish Design Galleries

  • Exhibition design ZMMA
  • Graphic design Why Not Associates
  • Lighting Arup
  • Interactive content ISO
  • Structural engineer Eckersley O’Callaghan
  • Project management Turner & Townsend
  • Main contractor BAM
  • Exhibition fitout Elmwood Projects
  • Display cases Florea design
  • AV systems Sysco Productions

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