V&A and the University of Dundee

Published on 11 September 2018

The story of our role in the creation of the V&A Dundee

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V&A Dundee opened its doors on 15 September 2018 in Kengo Kuma’s magnificent building at the heart of the city’s waterfront.

This is a project in which the University has been closely involved since its very beginning. The original idea was sparked at the University, which led to us making the first pitch to the V&A to consider Dundee as a location.

As a founding partner of the project we retain strong links with V&A Dundee. Just one sign of this was our award to Kengo Kuma of an honorary degree at our graduation ceremonies this summer.

Our mission as a University is to transform lives, through the creation, sharing and application of knowledge. V&A Dundee is a project that is already showing it can help transform a city, with a growing awareness and changed perception of Dundee around the world. Not often have the Wall Street JournalLonely PlanetCNN and other global media been highlighting Dundee as one of the world’s 'must visit' places, just one product of the 'V&A effect'.

This is the story of how that original idea was sparked and how the University helped make it happen.

Kengo Kuma outside the V&A Dundee

Kengo Kuma outside the V&A Dundee

Early 2000s

In the early 2000s senior management at the University were acutely aware our reputation was closely tied with that of the city and there was a feeling we needed to do something dramatic to improve the city’s standing nationally and internationally.

There was a link to V&A through our University Secretary at the time, Dr David Duncan, who had worked with Sir Mark Jones when he was Director of National Museums of Scotland. Sir Mark by this time was Director of the V&A.

An enquiry was made to Sir Mark as to whether he would hear a pitch from the University to explore the idea of bringing the V&A to the city. This was at a time when other cultural institutions such as Guggenheim and Tate had been expanding to new cities, and we thought something like this could be truly transformational for Dundee.

A 15-minute time slot was identified, and that is where the conversation really started.

The pitch had four main points:

  1. The V&A has a huge amount of material that they never have a chance to exhibit because of space restraints in South Kensington.
  2. The V&A's longstanding focus on robust academic research to underpin their exhibitions matched to the strong research reputation in the applied arts at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, part of the University of Dundee. Indeed there was huge complementarity between Duncan of Jordanstone (being the only Scottish art school that has such a strong research base for the applied arts) and V&A.
  3. There was no museum dedicated to the applied or digital arts in Scotland – digital being an area that the V&A had started to really delve into.
  4. Finally, that the V&A could anchor any expansion plans around a really exciting urban regeneration project that would demonstrate the ability of a major arts capital project to transform a post-industrial city.

That last point was a key one. The University feeling was that a V&A in Dundee would really stand out in a way it wouldn’t if it had gone to some other cities which already had a wider cultural provision. There was also a connection between V&A and the then Dean of Duncan of Jordanstone College, Professor Georgina Follett, who was a jeweller and had pieces exhibited in the V&A at South Kensington.

The initial pitch was made by Joan Concannon, the University’s Director of External Relations at the time, who managed to extend it to a full 20 minutes. Considered in the whole, this was enough to persuade Sir Mark and colleagues to visit Dundee, where an ambitious £1billion redevelopment of the city’s entire waterfront was in its early stages. A potential site was identified at the heart of the central waterfront. Mike Galloway, the City Council’s Director of City Development and an early supporter of the idea, said it was a viable option and from there things started to gain momentum.

The Scottish Government were approached and were supportive, and Abertay University and Scottish Enterprise subsequently got involved.

Building momentum

The University then hosted a series of events from 2007 onwards, looking to gather further support and with partners build a solid case to establish V&A in Dundee.

We hosted a symposium bringing representatives from Bilbao and other cities where similar cultural projects had had a major impact. We brought people from across the creative industries together to hear early plans. We invited the public to lectures from leading cultural commentators and design thinkers who outlined what the project could bring to the city and Scotland.

This was all in the early days of the project, before there was an architectural competition to design a building, and before V&A Dundee even had any staff, employees from across the University and partners filling the roles required to nurture it along.

SNP Ministers and Sir Pete Downes confirming government funding for the V&A Dundee

SNP Ministers and Sir Pete Downes confirming government funding for the V&A Dundee

Sir Pete Downes, Fiona Hyslop, and Sir Mark Jones.

Sir Pete Downes, Fiona Hyslop, and Sir Mark Jones.

Sir Alan Langlands and Sir Mark Jones

Sir Alan Langlands, Principal of the University until 2009, helped nurture the project through its earliest stages. He is seen here with Sir Mark Jones, then Director of the V&A, at a symposium held at the University where the project was publicly explored in detail, including contributions from representatives of the city of Bilbao, where the Guggenheim Museum had made such a huge cultural impact.

Jack McConnell announced the Scottish Government’s support for V&A Dundee

The project attracted vital political support from the outset. Then First Minister Jack McConnell announced the Scottish Government’s support early on, in 2007, during a visit to the University (seen here with Joan Concannon, Dr David Duncan and Professor Georgina Follett, all among the main drivers of the V&A Dundee in its earliest days).

The time was right to be bold

Just as momentum was building, Sir Alan was given a job as Chief Executive of HEFCE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England. It was then that Pete Downes, a scientist, took over both as Principal of the University and Chair of the Steering Board of stakeholders in the V&A Dundee project. Reaffirming the University’s commitment and vision of transformation, he led the process to the point where Design DUNDEE Ltd was created as a charitable company to deliver the project. He was instrumental in the appointments of Lesley Knox and Phil Long and has been a Director ever since.

Throughout the early days of the project, and even beyond, there was a regular question - 'Why Dundee?'.

Our response was, and still is, 'Why not?'. It was an ambitious proposal from the city, but the time was right to be bold and that gambit paid off.

Even from the early stages, before the project was fully confirmed, it was helping change perceptions of Dundee and raise awareness of the city far and wide. We could see that our original idea had a strong chance to be an exciting reality.

That time has now come.

Notes to editors

Top image of V&A copyright Frame Focus Capture Photography.
Image of Kengo Kuma outside V&A Dundee copyright V&A Dundee.
Other images of V&A Dundee copyright V&A Dundee.
All other images copyright University of Dundee.


Press Office, University of Dundee

Story category Dundee/local community