Monday, September 24, 2018

V&A Dundee

Back in the late '80's the V&A ran a series of add posters describing itself as 'an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached'. It is quite a nice museum, the sort of place where you can spend days without exhausting its displays, and the kind of museum where despite hours of searching I've utterly failed to relocate galleries I've visited before. It's stuffed full of objects that cover any aspects of the decorative arts I can conceive of.

Which is hardly surprising when you consider that it has almost quarter of a million artifacts in its collection suitable for long term display. Those are only part of its more than two and a quarter million artifacts, of which around 60,000 are displayed between the V&A and the Museum of Childhood at any one time.

Initially I was really excited about the prospect of a V&A outpost in Dundee. I have very strong feelings about getting some of the national collection out of London and within reach of the sizeable portion of the population who don't live near it. It's also increasingly, and now prohibitively, expensive to get to the capital, at least it is for me thanks to East Midland Mainline.

I was even more pleased when I realised that it would be entirely feasible to stop in Dundee on the way north and that this trip was taking place a week after it opened. If you arrive by train, the station is literally opposite the new museum, if you're driving you turn up there before you know it and there's reasonably priced parking a couple of minutes walk away.

Then I read something about the South Kensington mothership having a rummage around to produce 300 loan items with a Scottish connection. 300 items out of almost quarter of a million. It made me wonder what exactly they would have in the way of content.

My first impression of the new building was that it's quite small as well - no chance of losing yourself or whole galleries in this one. Second impression is that Kengo Kuma has created something magical. The building twists around and doesn't have a bad side to see it from. As you drive past it the shape echoes a boat, an impression further underlined by RRS Discovery (Scott and Shackleton's ship that was built in Dundee) that sits beside her.

From other angles it looks like the sea cliffs that inspired Kuma, and again this impression is reinforced by the way the building leans out over the Tay along with pools of water that surround and reflect it. Inside the light is wonderful, especially on the sunny day I saw it on, with reflections off the water dancing all over the place.

The central atrium which has the (ace) cafe and gift shop on the ground floor, and a restaurant above is impressive, but it takes up a lot of the building. I didn't see the Ocean Liners exhibition but have read that it looks even better here than it did in London. Which leaves the Scottish Design Galleries.

This is where it all falls apart for me. The gallery is small, a good portion of it is taken up by Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Oak Room. I'm prejudiced here because I'm not a Mackintosh fan. With no natural light the Oak Room is dark and a little bit pokey. As a tea room it might have been very handy for illicit rendezvous, as an exhibit it's a lot of dimly lit wood. Some Mackintosh furniture would have made it more interesting, but it's empty.

Scotland has a long and rich design history, I don't think that's as little known as the gallery blurb suggests, but I certainly didn't come out of this feeling that I'd learnt much about it, or its influence around the world. It's more of a cabinet of curiosities than anything else.

A Vivienne Westwood suit near the entrance has a sign that declares she supports Harris tweed, an Alexander McQueen wedding dress near the end comes from a collection titled 'Widows of Culloden', they start hint at how a romanticised Scottish past has inspired fashion, but it's disjointed. A suit by Hardy Amis using Bernat Klein tweed doesn't explain much about who Bernat Klein was, why he's interesting, or how important the textile trade was (and still is) to the Borders.

Shetland knitwear is represented by a single fine lace shawl and a jumper, Orkney gets a chair, and so on. There's no depth to any of it, most provincial museums I've been in have more comprehensive collections, and do a better job of exploring their context. This will be a great place to see traveling exhibitions, it's a cracking cafe with a wonderful view, and a stunning building, but it's limited content makes it seem a wasted opportunity to me.

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