New director reveals vision for reimagining the future of V&A Dundee

It is the iconic new Scottish landmark that has propelled Dundee onto the international stage.

Leonie Bell was appointed the new director of V&A Dundee in July.
Leonie Bell was appointed the new director of V&A Dundee in July.

But just two years after opening its doors to the public, the new director of Dundee’s V&A has signalled that a major rethink of the attraction is on the cards.

Leonie Bell has pledged to reimagine how exhibitions and events are staged inside the building – and make more use of the public space designed by its award-winning Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.

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The V&A was opened alongside the historic Antarctic research vessel Discovery in September 2018. Picture: Kenny Lam/VisitScotland

Walkways and other landscaped areas outside the building, which sits at the heart of the city’s £1 billion waterfront regeneration, are also expected to be brought into more use in future, particularly once a new urban beach and gardens are completed next year.

She has suggested V&A Dundee will be creating more of its own bespoke exhibitions in future, as well as forging close collaborations with the city’s other major cultural institutions and aiming to extend its international connections, under a new vision for the attraction as “a place of change, debate and conversation”.

Ms Bell said the building was already emerging as a new “sanctuary” for Dundonians after reopening to the public in August, when its Mary Quant exhibition was unveiled.

She said: “We are very lucky. Our building is outstanding. It is a phenomenal piece of design, not only from the outside, but also from the inside. It is an incredible sanctuary at the moment.

V&A Dundee reopened in August with the unveiling of an exhibition devoted to fashion trailblazer Mary Quant. Picture: Michael McGurk

“Lots of people are nervous about going back out and finding their way in public spaces again. For me, in the current Covid environment, our space is one of our greatest assets. We are a unique building in the UK.

“There’s something about the way that the architecture, the light, nature and the river are all really coming together in a very interesting way at the moment.

"One thing I’ve been struck by is the palpable appetite from audiences to be in cultural places and spaces. They want to come back and enjoy themselves, but also reflect on where we are as a society now. The feedback we’re getting is that it feels like a really safe, calm place to be.”

Ms Bell, who was appointed to take over the running of the £80.1 million museum in the summer, pledged to take into account criticism there was too much empty space in the museum and also ensure it was a place that “celebrates change” which would constantly offer new experiences, even for regular visitors.

Ms Bell said: “I want to develop a refreshed vision for the whole organisation, which will obviously be about what we do within the galleries, but how we will maybe think differently about exhibition-making, not just within traditional gallery settings, but using the whole building slightly differently. It’s about thinking about the whole experience that a visitor will have.

“We’re learning all the time. Covid is making us work. We’ve already closed the cafe on the ground floor, where there is now an exhibition.

“We’re going to look at all the space we’ve got to be quite imaginative in telling the story of design, but also the story of our building, as well as thinking about the flow-through of people and how they can enjoy not only exhibitions and activities, but also the architecture.

“This is not about looking back and thinking that what happened wasn’t right. We’re only two years old and we’ve been closed for part of that time. We’re still learning and we will always learn. Buildings are always places of change.

“We want to be a design museum and attraction that celebrates change so that when you come back you will have a different experience, whether you are from Dundee or if you are visiting from afar.

“I take the criticism we’ve had about space. I quite like scrutiny and criticism. Everybody should have a view on V&A Dundee. We should be really open to being part of a debate about how we get better and how we can do more in certain areas. As we and our audiences get more familiar with each other, we can absolutely do things differently.

Dundee-born Bell insisted there was no question of the founding ambitions of the museum being “diminished” as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has limited visitor numbers to just 800 per day.

She said: “With my team and our partners, I want to rethink what a 21st-century design museum in Dundee, but also for Scotland, that connects across the UK and the world, is.

"We’ll always have a relationship with the V&A, but I think we’ll also start to think about what we do to support and celebrate Scotland’s design and architecture community.

"We can’t let the ambition with which we were born be diminished. We have to be locally rooted, but also have that reach out across all of Scotland and beyond. We can’t let the current challenges dim that. We have to keep that optimism and that energy.”

The city council, one of the key players in the creation of V&A Dundee, instigated a cultural recovery plan for the city in the summer, which inspired a £1m fundraising campaign to offset some of the impact of the pandemic.

Ms Bell said: “Culture is going to be critical of the emotional and wellbeing recovery of Dundee, as well as its economic recovery.

"V&A Dundee is only here because of the real strength of the city’s other cultural organisations. It is by working together that we will be part of Dundee and Scotland’s recovery.

"You can walk around so many incredible spaces within a short period of time and we have incredible natural assets like the river.

"The city is reimagining its waterfront and giving it back to its people for recreation and leisure. Even when the building was closed there were still people congregating outside. We’re really interested in thinking about our outdoor space as part of our own cultural offer in future.”

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