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The V&A is more than just a museum to Dundee

Scottish Field’s Steph Abbot returned to her home town of Dundee this week ahead of the official opening of the new V&A museum.

What a strange and glorious feeling it is to realise that the eyes of the world are firmly focused on the city you call home. This week I experienced a mixture of immeasurable pride and excitement as I met people who had travelled thousands of miles from a lengthy list of countries around the globe to come to Dundee, not as a stopgap on their journey, but as a destination.

Having lived in Dundee for the first 22 years of my life, I had accepted relatively early on in my education that I would most probably have to look further afield to start my career.

During those years, the streets became peppered with business for sale/lease signs as more companies moved out or closed down completely. The hollow shells left behind were sad reminders of the city’s economic struggles.

The shine of bonnie Dundee had dulled over the years as its industrial might faded almost completely in to the history books, unemployment sky rocketed and poverty and deprivation soared along with alcohol and drug misuse.

As Dundee City Council leader John Alexander said: ‘(being 30 years old) I don’t pretend to know it in depth because I wasn’t born but during the 70s and 80s with the post-industrial decline, the manufacturing collapse – Dundee just completely lost its way.’

Particularly towards the end of the Victorian era, Dundee was famous the world over for its jute, jam and journalism. It is in this city that local woman Janet Keillor discovered marmalade in the 1700s and publishing giants DC Thomson set up their highly regarded empire which is home to characters such as Dennis the Menace and produces comics The Beano and The Dandy, among many other publications.

However, I personally feel the closest connection with the jute industry. My own grandfather served his time in a jute mill in Dundee before going to Calcutta in 1933 to work as a mill clerk.

He fought in World War 2 in the Royal Artillery and met my grandmother in Dundee while on leave. She was actually from East London but had gone to live with her cousins in Dundee after her parents’ home was bombed during the blitz (proof that love can happen even in the darkest of times).

They married in India in 1949 and had my dad the following year before finally moving back to settle in Dundee in 1959. My family’s involvement with the jute industry didn’t begin with my grandfather, as far as we know, both my great- and great-great-grandfather also worked in Dundee’s jute mills.

My own connections to the city’s deep-rooted textile and creative design heritage don’t stop there. My grandmother on my mother’s side worked in the Timex factory from the late 70s to the mid-80s, amongst a group of women who are finally now being recognised for their contribution towards the beginnings of the video gaming industry. At its peak, the company was the single biggest employer in the city with 6000 members of staff.

It is these industries that are echoed through the voices of mine and my friends’ grandparents and occasionally parents, with a whimsical sense that such large-scale opportunities for the people of Dundee exist only in memories.

As I approached the V&A and walked through its doors for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel a little emotional as I thought of the generations of my family who have lived and worked in Dundee, my friends who have chosen to raise their children here and the possibilities that were hopefully now being carved out for both the present and the future.

When Phillip Long, director of the V&A Dundee officially welcomed the press to the museum, I’d say my applause was louder than any other.

I asked him about the significance of this new space for the people of Dundee and he said: ‘Creativity is such an important part of our culture, it creates opportunities for people, it’s one of the ways that we express our sense of the world around us. We want the people of Dundee to take this place to its heart. Come in and use it, treat it as a living room, a place to come and have discussions, have debates, come with your family, with your friends and show off what this city has achieved.’

This ‘living room for the city’ concept was an integral part of Japanese architect Kengo Kuma’s design as he said: ‘In most museums, the entrance is just the entrance and the exhibition space is the protagonist for most museums. But for the community, the use of this space is very important. The people in Dundee can use the space like their living room. They can have tea, meet with friends and spend time with family in this space. It’s the reason I used warm materials like oak for the interior.’

Despite the new accolades such as being named the only UNESCO City of Design in the UK and described by the Wall Street Journal as Scotland’s coolest city, council leader John Alexander acknowledged that the V&A was by no means, a magic wand: ‘There’s no one thing we could ever do that will solve all of the social problems that exist in Dundee. That’s the reality.

‘When I talk about the V&A or the waterfront development, I equally talk about poverty and deprivation – drug and alcohol misuse because actually they are part of the same conversation, they are part of the equation and the whole point of doing the waterfront and the V&A and the motivation for that was those underlying issues.’

As the first members of the public gear up to discover what lies inside the V&A (I won’t spoil the exhibitions for you) I hope that they feel a similar sense of excitement as I did.

The feeling of possibility, the palpable buzz that exists in the air and the audible passion in the voices of those involved in the project. Yes, the city has a way to go to solve its problems but what a distance it has come in terms of reclaiming its status as a major city of the world and instilling hope and inspiration among its people.

That’s definitely the kind of city I’m immensely proud to call home.

For more information visit www.vam.ac.uk/dundee.