Ship shape

Eleanor Mills talks to Philip Long, the director of the V&A Museum of Design Dundee, about launching this new vessel of Scottish design.
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Eleanor Mills
“It’s been the most amazing project to be involved in, and a great privilege,” says Philip Long, the director of the V&A Museum of Design Dundee, which opens to the public in September.

“We are proud to be part of the regeneration of the city,” says Long, who became the director in 2011, the first of near-40 staff appointments. “Projects like these are unusual, so to be involved in and responsible for the development of a brand-new organisation is thrilling.”

Designed by the Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma (who is also designing the Tokyo 2020 Olympic stadium), the vast new concrete museum is on Dundee’s waterfront. With its bow-like form hanging over the Firth of Tay, it sits next to an historic ship, the RRS Discovery, which once sailed the great explorers Scott and Shackleton to the Antarctic.

“The museum has a maritime form, which is important,” says Long, who was born in Edinburgh and will have an office that looks out over the Tay. “Dundee had a major shipbuilding industry, but turned its back on its river during 1960s industrial decline. The city is now reconnecting the Tay with the city centre, and Kuma’s design for the V&A does that very cleverly.”

Aptly, the inaugural show in Dundee will have a maritime theme – Ocean Liners: Speed and Style will travel from the V&A in London, where it opened on 3 February. But why open such an iconic new museum with a show that has already been seen elsewhere, even if the subject resonates with the area? Long says one of the aims is for the museum in Dundee to enable major V&A exhibitions to be seen by more people across the UK. And he says that as part of this, prior to opening, the organisation has worked hard to forge connections in the city, region and nation.

“This institution is at the service of the city and the wider region,” he says. “It is here to help change people’s lives, and it can do that in lots of ways.”

Ripple effect

The key to the museum’s development – long before the construction was even close to completion – has been helping people learn about design in the region. “Very early on we invested significantly in the learning department, bringing them together much earlier than might be expected, because it was very important for us to find a way to engage people from across Scotland with the project,” Long says.

The 2016 Schools Design Challenge worked with key stage 1 pupils from schools across Dundee and Angus. The challenge encouraged pupils to use design to change their everyday environment by working in teams to develop creative solutions to real problems relevant to them. And in February 2017 the museum worked with two local primary schools to take inspiration from the local design heritage of bonnet making.

“The Bonnetmakers project was absolutely incredible,” says Long. “We brought the children together with a milliners guild who talked about the heritage of the area. The children made hats for themselves, their parents and teachers. At the fashion show at the end, the children walked down the catwalk hand-in-hand with their parents wearing their creations. It was hard not to have a tear in your eye.”

It has been a challenge to create a learning programme before the museum is even open, but Long feels that it has been worthwhile, as education is a key part of what the museum will offer.

“We want to be of service to the community here,” he says. “We want to change the perception of communities that might not have obviously thought V&A Dundee was going to be something for them.”

“We have a fantastic suite of purpose-built learning spaces,” Long continues. “They are not buried in the museum, and are great places for people to get involved in and inspired by design.”

Education was key to the agenda from an early stage because the city’s educational bodies were always part of the decision-making process. The University of Dundee, Abertay University, Dundee City Council and other key city organisations joined forces about 20 years ago to proactively regenerate the city. “It’s a sort of Team Dundee,” says Long.

One of the aspects that the University of Dundee brought was its relationship with the V&A in London. “Out of that came a discussion that there should be a major cultural presence here in Dundee,” Long says.

The university, being closely affiliated with the V&A in South Kensington, invited the museum to consider the opportunity, and the then director of the London institution, Mark Jones, leapt at the chance.

“For the first time there was the opportunity to develop a physical V&A presence elsewhere in the UK, like Tate had had for many years,” says Long. The £1bn waterfront redevelopment, which the V&A is part of, was underway when Long joined. And while Kuma had already won the competition to design the building, Long was charged with leading an ambitious capital campaign and developing a vision for the new institution. Was he ready to take up the role when he did?

Long had the experience gained from being at the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) for nearly 20 years. He started at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 1993 as a research assistant and left as the project manager for the NGS and senior curator for the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, in 2011.

“There are so many opportunities in that organisation, you can build a whole career there, but when I heard of the possibility of a V&A in Dundee I had to throw my hat into the ring.”

Long had worked on a lot of high-profile exhibitions and projects during his time at the NGS, but the crowning achievement was the development of a major outdoor work by landscape designer Charles Jencks, and the nationwide touring art scheme Artist Rooms. Long brokered a significant donation of modern and contemporary art from the collector Anthony d’Offay in a collaboration between NGS and Tate, which has formed the landmark arts programme.

Icons of design

Over the years, Long has developed a taste for curating, and is visibly excited to be presenting the collection galleries at the V&A.

“I can’t resist talking about how this museum will present Scotland’s extraordinary design history,” he says. “We’re very proud of that – just the way that British design is the absolute cornerstone of the V&A South Kensington.”

Of the 300 items on show in the Scottish Design Galleries, it is the restored Charles Rennie Mackintosh tea room, displayed in partnership with Glasgow Life, that Long is particularly thrilled about showing.

“Mackintosh designed it for his most important patron, Miss Cranston, for her Ingram Street tea rooms in Glasgow,” says Long. The oak panelled room has not been seen in public since 1917. There was a lot of restoration to do as the room was disassembled in haste and there are hundreds of individual wooden and stained-glass parts.

“We’ve restored it to its original 1907 appearance and had some fascinating discussions along the way,” says Long.

Mackintosh created beautiful design that you could be in, work in and wear, which is at the heart of what Long is passionate about. “Our fundamental museum mission is to help people comprehend why design is so important in their everyday lives.”
The V&A Dundee looks remarkable and by all intents and purposes what it delivers will be too. After all, it is only right that a museum housing icons of design should be one itself – to demonstrate, as Long says, the power of design to change people’s lives.
Philip Long at a glance
Philip Long studied a BA in visual arts at the University of Lancaster, and did an MA in museum and gallery studies at the University of Essex before being appointed as the assistant director for the Fine Art Society, Glasgow.

After five years there, he moved to become research assistant for the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 1993. He was appointed as the special project adviser to the trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland in 1996, for the development of a
new gallery.

In 2008, he was promoted to project manager, National Galleries of Scotland, and senior curator, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

He was appointed the director of V&A Dundee in 2011.
V&A Dundee at a glance
The new museum, run in partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London’s South Kensington, will open on 15 September this year.

V&A Dundee is the first institution devoted solely to Scottish design and is designed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, who was inspired by a cliff on the north east coast of Scotland.

The museum has been co-founded by the V&A South Kensington, Scottish Enterprise, Dundee City Council, Abertay University and the University of Dundee.

An 8,000 sq m metre building at a cost of £80m, the project has run over budget since its 2009 cost announcement of £45m.

The museum will be run by a team of about 40 staff, plus volunteers. Collection spaces will be free to enter.

The Dundee museum is one of three new V&A sites. There other two are the V&A Gallery at the Design Society, which opened in Shekou, China, in 2017; and V&A East, which is being developed in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. 

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