Places to visit in Dundee

The unveiling of the magnificent new V&A Dundee reflects both the vibrancy of the city’s cultural life and its broader renaissance. Christiana Spens takes a closer look at this thriving Scottish city.

South of the Scottish Highlands, on the east coast of Scotland, where the River Tay meets the North Sea, the once neglected and ‘invisible’ city of Dundee is having a renaissance.

Over the past few years, dramatic demolitions and constructions at the river’s edge have transformed chaotic urban dereliction into a breathtaking waterfront – at the centre of which stands the new V&A Dundee, built in the shape of a vast ocean liner and docked sublimely by the ‘silvery Tay’. It adds to the already established vibrant creative scene, and the city is finally coming into its own.

On the waterfront

Designed by Japanese architects Kengo Kuma & Associates, the magnificent V&A Dundee is by a shallow, rippling pool that reflects its striking form, and attracts curious seagulls. Inspired by the formidable cliffs of East Scotland, as well as Dundee’s history as a shipping port, its clean lines and granite tones complement the industrial surroundings as well as the natural beauty of the Tay Estuary.

Inside, visitors are invited to explore the story of design – its past, present and future – and how central it is to our everyday lives. The Scottish Design Galleries focus on innovation at home and abroad, covering architecture, textiles, video games, fashion, engineering and jewellery. The magnificently restored Charles Rennie Mackintosh Oak Room is a central feature of the collection, alongside objects ranging from a ‘Valkyrie’ tiara by Cartier to recent inventions for healthcare.

A history of discovery

Docked just next to the new V&A lies a far older and considerably well-travelled institution: the Royal Research Ship Discovery, built in Dundee, and the first ship designed for scientific research in Antarctica. It first sailed for Antarctica in 1901, with Captain Scott, later travelling to destinations including Russia, Turkey and the USA, before returning to Dundee in 1986.

The museum, Discovery Point, attached by a ramp to the ship, provides visitors with intriguing insights into these expeditions, as well as the challenges and highlights of the design, building and continued maintenance of the impressive vessel.

Contemporary spaces and artist-run venues

A few minutes’ walk away, Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) offers cultural attractions over three floors, two cinemas and two galleries. Acclaimed for its exhibitions of emerging and international artists, which take fresh and challenging perspectives on the modern world, the centre also provides visitors with a programme of related activities. The print studio, on the same floor as the cinemas and restaurant, features state-of-the-art facilities for established artists and beginners alike.

In the West End of the city, just beyond the DCA, there is an array of more individual, flourishing cultural venues.

Generator Projects, just off the Perth Road, is an artist-run collective, project space and gallery that has been running for more than 20 years and regularly shows new work by emerging artists. Wasps Artists Studios, meanwhile, in Meadow Mill Projects, houses more than 70 artists’ studios as well as two exhibition and performance spaces. For music, the West End boasts Le Freak Records, on the Perth Road, which is as visually stimulating as any art gallery, and enjoys a cult following.

From past to present

Heading into the centre of Dundee itself, McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery & Museum, housed in an impressive Gothic Revival-style building, contains fine and decorative art alongside fascinating artefacts relating to natural and local history. Currently celebrating 80 years of the Beano with a dedicated exhibition (to 21 October), visitors can enjoy learning about the infamous comic-book characters as well as the story of printing, and the Beano’s publisher, Dundee-based DC Thomson.

Further afield, the University of Dundee Museum Collections explore the links between the arts, science and history. From paintings in the Tower Foyer Gallery to historical medical objects in the Tayside Medical History Museum, and from a display of biological specimens in the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum to exciting research connecting design and science in LifeSpace, there is a wealth of objects, artefacts and works of art to engage with.

Indeed, Dundee’s cultural collections and events offer a way into finding out about innovative cultural adventures past and present. When it opens on 15 September the new V&A Dundee will celebrate this attitude and the achievements of a city that may only recently have come into its own but, like the Discovery, has always had its eye to the future and to the wider world.

Christiana Spens is a writer and academic who has lived in the Dundee area for five years.

This feature was originally published in the autumn 2018 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

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