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Design for life - the potential of Dundee's V&A museum

Design for life - the potential of Dundee's V&A museum

Work begins today on the new V&A museum of design in Dundee, but it is part of a wider redevelopment in the city.

To counter the significant challenges of demography and deprivation, a £1bn 30-year masterplan to design an open, inclusive city of the future is underway.

An important part of this aspiration for reinvention is the title UNESCO City of Design, awarded in December in recognition of the city’s contributions to the world: aspirin, marmalade, the Beano comic and, more recently, video games such as Grand Theft Auto. Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop said the award was “a new chapter in Dundee’s story”. And at the heart of the award is the new V&A, intended to be the cultural eye in the redevelopment storm. 

However, the project encountered a storm of its own as the cost of the project spiralled. The orginal budget of £45m has almost doubled. 

The V&A Dundee’s director Philip Long says it is right “any project which depends on substantial public funding should be scrutinised”.People’s interest in the cost is because it is “an exceptional project”, which is supported “because it’s already, I believe, helping Dundee redevelop a sense of confidence and civic pride, and an ability to get things done, which is making a difference to the future of the city. As a consequence, there’s a very close interest in the progress of the project,” he says.

"It’s already helping Dundee redevelop a sense of confidence and civic pride, and an ability to get things done"

The Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington was built at a time of empire, but was “born in response to a sense that Britain’s manufacturing prowess was falling behind other countries,” and attempted to improve manufacturing quality by showcasing great art and design, according to Long. “We’re thinking about that 19th-century vision and how it makes sense for a new V&A being developed in the 21st century,” he says. 
The V&A wanted to work with Dundee because it recognised it could contribute to the redevelopment of the city. “Dundee is a city which for the last forty or fifty years has been in a depressed state, but in the last ten to fifteen years, the strong civic leadership in the city, both within the local authority and within the academic sector and other sectors, have taken steps towards a really impressive vision for the city that will take it away from that difficult recent history, with an ambition to return it to the sort of prosperity it might have enjoyed in the past but without the schism there was between the wealthy and the poor that was characteristic of its success in the 19th and early part of the 20th century.”
Part of that leadership is the recognition of the value of cultural investment, argues Long, through development of projects like Dundee Contemporary Arts and Dundee Rep theatre. “It recognised, as many other cities around the world have in recent years, investment in culture, while at first can be difficult to convince politicians and funders of the merit of this, can pay extraordinary dividends in the redevelopment of a city; dividends that go well beyond simply the provision of cultural facilities. They help redevelop a self-confidence and pride in a city, which leads to all sorts of opportunity,” he says. Long cites Bilbao, as an example of a number of cities worldwide which have seen growth in employment, inward investment and civic pride stem from new cultural facilities.
Inward investment is already starting to come into the area attracted by the project, Long says, and the council has predicted the museum will contribute over £11m a year into the economy, with between 500 to 1000 new hotel beds required in the city over the next ten years. “It’s an investment Dundee deserves,” says Long.

If the V&A is to be “a place in Scotland which helps people understand how universally relevant design is and how design changes lives,” then developing the economy can go hand-in-hand with education in what design is and what it can mean, according to those behind the City of Design bid. 

Dundee’s two leading universities, Abertay University and the University of Dundee, produce hundreds of graduates in different design disciplines every year. Many stay in the city to set up new companies, with the support of organisations like Creative Dundee and Fleet Collective. Abertay’s degree in computer games design has produced hundreds of world-leading digital designers who work in the games industry across the world. Last year one graduate, Sophia George, won a six-month residency at the V&A in London as ‘games designer in residence’.  
The fruits of that residency is the iPad game Strawberry Thief, which was downloaded over 60,000 times in the first two weeks of release in October. She was inspired by the famous ‘Strawberry Thief’ furnishing fabric by William Morris, on display in the V&A’s Britain 1500-1900 galleries. She then developed the game back in Dundee at Abertay and now runs workshops in schools in Tayside on games art and design. “Inspired by this success, I’m now working on several new projects that explore making art and literature into beautiful interactive games,” she says.
Long says George’s story exemplifies the V&A Dundee project

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