The V&A Dundee Museum is an £80 Million Mistake

What’s your favourite museum and what does it look like?

For me, it’s hard to choose between the V&A Museum in London, with its beautiful, endless art and design galleries and its stylish special exhibitions; and the Exploratorium in San Francisco, which does the best job of explaining science and technology I’ve ever seen; and of course, the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, home to an entire 64-gun warship.

But I have no memory of the Vasa Museum looks like from the outside. For all I know, it’s a huge featureless box, just like the Exploratorium. And while I do remember the V&A’s red brickwork, it blurs together with other Victorian buildings across the UK. I couldn’t care less what my favourite museums look like, because what I love about them sits inside their walls.

The new V&A Dundee museum is the polar opposite. With its angular slate-grey profile set against the River Tay, it’s unforgettable. Like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, you’ll see it in every Dundee tourist guide for decades to come.

It just has one problem: there’s barely anything inside. It’s not a museum, it’s an £80 million public sculpture.

A Living Room for the City

I was genuinely excited to see the V&A Dundee when it opened in 2018. I grew up in Dundee, and I hoped the new museum might be just as good as its parent in London, if understandably smaller.

But even before I set foot inside, I could tell something was wrong:

V&A Dundee exterior (V&A Dundee)

How tall do you think that building is? 3, 4, maybe even 5 storeys of public space?

Nope. There are just two floors the public can enter:

Section View (Archdaily, V&A Dundee / Kengo Kuma and Associates)

That seems a bit small for a major new museum, but still, it’s a wide building. Maybe two floors is fine if they’re both filled with galleries and exhibition space?

Let’s take a look at what’s on the ground floor:

Ground Floor Plan (Archdaily, V&A Dundee / Kengo Kuma and Associates)

So, there’s a shop, a cafe, an info desk, and a lobby. But that’s just a plan, right? Surely they added something else?

Photo of the ground floor, taken from the second floor

No, it really is just a shop, a cafe, an info desk, and a lobby. Well, there’s a bit more of the shop out of view to the right, plus some toilets and lockers, but that’s it. Kind of a strange way to greet visitors to what’s meant to be, you know, a museum.

OK, but maybe they’re saved everything for the second floor? Let’s find out:

Second Floor Plan (Archdaily, V&A Dundee / Kengo Kuma and Associates)

The Temporary Exhibition Galleries at the top and the Restaurant at the bottom both require visitors to pay, so the two areas the general public can access for free are the Scottish Design Galleries and the foyer, which includes the Michelin Design Gallery.

Here’s the Michelin Design Gallery:

Photo of the Michelin Design Gallery

These kinds of temporary open exhibition spaces are often quite small so it’s easy to change them up. You won’t spend a lot of time here.

And here is part of the Scottish Design Gallery, the only permanent gallery in the whole museum:

Photo from the main entrance of the Scottish Design Gallery

It’s pretty good! There are lots of fun examples of Scottish design, from video games like Lemmings to sculptures by Eduardo Paolozzi. There’s even an entire room from one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s tearooms. If you took your time, you could spend a good hour wandering through the gallery’s 550m² of space.

And then you might be done with your visit, because that’s literally everything you can see for free.

You could stump up £12 to see a temporary exhibition, but I didn’t because I’d already seen Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the V&A London. If you did pay, however, you’d get access to Scotland’s largest museum-grade exhibition space, spanning 1100m². And you might really enjoy it! But the V&A Dundee is unusual among UK museums in having only a third of its gallery space free to enter. The Science Museum and the National Museum of Scotland and the British Museum all have big paid exhibition spaces, but they’re dwarfed in size by their free galleries and exhibitions.

Perhaps if the V&A Dundee’s paid exhibitions were particularly good or unique, that would justify their command of the building, but its first two originated from the V&A London (Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt and Ocean Liners) and the third, Night Fever: Designing Club Culture, originated from the Vitra Design Museum. Its first fully-homegrown exhibition, Tartan, only comes in 2023 and is being curated by Jonathan Faiers, a professor of fashion at the University of… Southampton.

Try as I might, I cannot comprehend the decisions that went into building an £80 million museum with barely any space for free galleries, few original major exhibitions, and the entire first floor given over to a cafe and a shop. The V&A Dundee calls itself a “living room for the city“, but that only makes sense if there’s nothing to do in your living room, and you need to pay to turn on the TV.

But doesn’t everyone like the V&A Dundee? Most art critics gave it high marks. Will Gompertz at the BBC called the museum “world class”, going on at length about its architecture. Duncan Macmillan at The Scotsman gushed over the Scottish Design Galleries, saying “it is a delight for us, but it also fulfils the V&A’s duty to reach out beyond the English metropolis which is its home.” Rowan Moore at The Guardian had a rare dissent, complaining the museum’s “oddly distributed space is not actually congenial to the uses advertised.”

(I have never quite understood art critics’ obsession with architecture. One wonders how they would review Sir John Soane’s Museum or the Pitt Rivers Museum, neither of which look special from the outside – or even the inside – but have utterly fascinating collections, easily worthy of repeat visits.)

Visitors were much more faster to identify the museum’s flaws in their reviews. On Google Maps, the most common keyword is “waste”:

Screenshot of Google Maps V&A Dundee review keywords

Some of those reviews include:

  • Beautiful building but underwhelming exhibitions. So much waste of space at the entrance and stairway. Only free exhibitions on at the moment… – 3/5 stars, Elizabeth Moser
  • Visited today, very disappointing, both in the architectural features and the total waste of spaces within the building… – 3/5 stars, Janice Learmonth
  • Take some photos of the exterior and don’t waste your time inside, was in for about 25 minutes and had been round what was there… – 1/5 stars, Alan Urquhart

Tripadvisor is even less generous, with Dolly Dimples saying, “The building is nice but there’s hardly anything in it. Could be so much better,”, Matthew L saying, “The V&A building itself is a marvel … it is the content (or lack of) inside which left me so very disappointed,” and lbj17 adding, “There is much open space and we were unfortunately somewhat underwhelmed by the internal content.”

To be fair, there was some criticism of the V&A Dundee published in mainstream media by The Herald, but only long after the opening. Lorn Macneal, a conservation architect, was quoted saying, “Externally it is a striking piece of architecture,” but, “the inside … disappointed me. In many museums you enter, such as the Kelvingrove, you immediately see the exhibits, which create a sense of invitation to see and learn more. It has failed in my mind in its principle areas. It is a tourism hub, a cafeteria and a shop.”

Nicola Walls, director of arts and culture at Page Park architects, was more damning: “…When you walk in, the café and coffee shop on the ground floor is more affordable and the more expensive restaurant is upstairs. We talk a lot about these buildings being democratic, but is there a subconscious separation going on?”

So much for a living room for the city.

Finland’s 100th Birthday Present to Itself

At the end of 2018, just three months after the V&A Dundee, a vast new civic building opened in Finland: the Helsinki Central Library Oodi, commonly known as Oodi.

Aerial view of Oodi (Oodi, Tuomas Uusheimo)

The Oodi is a £88 million box. A box with flowing facades made of lovely materials, but a box nonetheless. It’s a functional shape, allowing each of its three floors to maximise its useable space.

The top floor is the library proper, holding 100,000 books, magazines, board games and video games:

Oodi “Book Heaven” (Oodi)

The second floor has a recording studio, synth studio, DJ and karaoke studio, photograph and video studio, digitizing studio, group kitchen, maker space, group rooms, game rooms, among other things. Most can be used for free:

Oodi Second Floor cutaway view (ALA Architects)

And the ground floor has more space for books, plus a cinema, events hall, gallery, exhibition area, and cafe:

Oodi Ground Floor cutaway view (ALA Architects)

In total, Oodi has 17,250m² of space, the vast majority of which can be used for free.

Oodi opened on Finland’s 100th anniversary of independence, which is why it’s been described as its 100th birthday present to itself: a lavish, more extravagant version of something it’s always wanted, open to everyone. A bit like a fancy museum, you might say.

There are more parallels between Oodi and the V&A Dundee: they both cost £80-90 million and their countries both have a population of 5.5 million. But that’s where the similarities end. Oodi has had almost three times as many visitors as the V&A Dundee, and even though you’d think a library is much less of a tourist attraction than a museum, it boasts far higher ratings on Google Maps and Tripadvisor:

V&A DundeeRiverside MuseumOodi
Founded201820112018
Size1100m² temporary + 550m² permanent galleries (8000m² total)7,000m² exhibition area17,250m² total (a third for books)
Cost£80 million£78 million€98 million (~£88m)
Year 1 Visitors830,000650,0003,100,000
City Population150,000630,000650,000
Country Population5.5 million5.5 million5.5 million
Tripadvisor Rating3.04.54.5
Google Maps Rating3.94.64.6

I’ve included Glasgow’s Riverside Museum of Transport in this comparison because it shows it’s possible to build a visually-striking museum with a reasonably-sized exhibition area for under £80 million. Not only was it designed by Zaha Hadid, but it has the same visitor ratings as Oodi!

Glasgow Riverside Museum exterior (Zaha Hadid Architects/Hufton & Crow)

Some Imaginary Questions and Answers

Q: Why does Helsinki need another big library? It already has plenty! So isn’t the Oodi even more of a waste of money than the V&A Dundee?

A: Not only does Oodi has more and different facilities than other Helsinki libraries, but each of those other libraries hit record numbers of visitors after Oodi opened in 2019. What’s more, Dundee already had a very good art gallery and museum, The McManus, which has <checks notes> a rating of 4.6 on Google Maps and and 4.5 on Tripadvisor.

Q: It’s not fair to compare a library’s visitor numbers with a museum’s! Most people will only go to a museum once, but they’ll go to a library lots of times.

A: And that’s a bad thing? Sounds like they’re getting a lot of value out of it.

Q: What’s wrong with making a civic building look nice?

A: There’s nothing wrong with interesting architecture, but not at the expense of its core purpose. The V&A Dundee’s is meant to be a museum – a place to see and learn from a curated selection of important objects. If the architecture of the building means that barely any of its space is available to display those objects, then it is bad architecture.

Q: Maybe the V&A Dundee’s true purpose is to attract tourists.

A: There are cheaper and better ways to do that than spend £80 million on a building that ranks 56th of out 118 “things to do” in Dundee.

Q: Who cares? It’s built now. We might as well appreciate it.

A: We should all care how £80 million of public money is spent. In Helsinki, it was enough to build a library that’s become the envy of the world. In Dundee, it was wasted on a bauble with such a miserly amount of useful public space it barely deserves to be called a museum.

Can It Be Saved?

In July 2020, Leonie Bell was announced as the new director of the V&A Dundee. Bell told The Courier, “I accept the criticism we have had about space,” and noted that during the pandemic, the museum converted its ground floor cafe into an exhibition. She added, “This is not about looking back and thinking that what happened wasn’t right. We are only two years old and have been closed for part of that time. We are still learning and we always will be learning. Buildings are always places of change.”

Aerial view of MIT Building 20 (MIT/MIT Museum)

Some buildings can change enormously. MIT’s famous Building 20, the “plywood palace”, was ugly and cheap, but it had many different uses over its 55 year lifespan because its box-like structure made it easy to modify the interior. The V&A Dundee is no Building 20 – just look at its plans. Its striking architecture makes major changes incredibly difficult.

What about smaller changes? Well, even if some or all of its ground floor cafe and shop were to be permanently converted into an exhibition, it would be a small exhibition sitting in a space manifestly not designed for exhibitions. It’d also interfere with the private events that presumably subsidise the museum, like filming Succession. A daring and admirable move would be to convert the 1100m² temporary gallery into a free or permanent gallery, instantly tripling the amount of space open to the public, but it’d be expensive and I can’t imagine the V&A would be happy about the loss of a venue for its London exhibitions.

I appreciate Bell’s sentiment, but her optimism is mistaken and her reluctance to look back risks the same mistakes being repeated elsewhere. At some point, you do have to look back. Now that we can say the museum was badly designed, poor value for money, and a disappointment to visitors and tourists compared to other Dundee attractions, we can ask: why did this happen?

The current staff aren’t to blame, and I’m sure they’ll do the best with what they were given. The fault lies with its original designers. All of the problems of the V&A Dundee’s design were foreseeable, which means they either didn’t consult outside experts, or they didn’t listen to them. If Scottish journalists ever rouse themselves to investigate, I hope those decision-makers are held accountable.

What they did was civic malpractice and one day it will become a textbook example of how not to build a museum.


Follow me on Twitter: @adrianhon 

I live in Edinburgh, and I’m CEO of Six to Start. I’ve consulted for The British Museum and the V&A Museum on digital culture and games.

I was lead designer of We Tell Stories, an online storytelling project included in the MOMA’s Talk to Me exhibition in 2011, along with Zombies, Run!, nominated for the Design Museum’s “Design of the Year” Award in 2013. My book, A History of the Future in 100 Objects, was the subject of an exhibition at The Shanghai Project, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2016-17.

Interested in my other writing about museums? Check out VR Will Break Museums (2016).

Want to know about new posts and when my book on gamification is coming out? Subscribe to my newsletter!

First Draft

From my newsletter

Last week, I delivered the first draft of “Untitled Gamification Book” to my editor. I think it’s going to be a good book! It should have something new for even the most familiar with gamification, but it’s accessible for people who’ve never heard the word at all. I hope it will delight and annoy everyone in equal measure. But this is not the time for self-promotion, with the publication date still unannounced.

It’s not the first time I’ve written a book, but waiting to hear the verdict feels very different this time. My other book, A History of the Future in 100 Objects, had a publisher, but it since it was funded on Kickstarter I didn’t feel beholden to any specific person while writing it. I deliberately chose a more traditional route with my new book, with all the good and ill that it entails.

Toward the end of my draft, I struggled a lot with the knowledge that the book would become dated as soon as I stopped writing. Of course, this is an inevitable consequence of writing any book about technology or current affairs, but the protracted book publishing process doesn’t help when compared to newspapers or magazines, let alone websites or newsletters.

But hey, I knew this going in, and it’s a trade I willingly made. Newsletters are good for some things and books are good for other things. Plus there’s a lot in the book that deals with very recent developments in gamification, but there’s much more that looks back years and decades and even centuries, so I’ve made my peace with it. Mostly.

Anyway, now that the first draft is done, I have found myself strangely free of the need to write 500 words a day for the first time in almost a year. Yes, there will be a second draft and a third draft, but I’m hopeful they won’t involve the same kind of existential dread that greets me when I begin a new chapter and wrangle hundreds of vaguely-connected ideas and references into a barely-coherent outline.

I also just finished a whole bunch of commitments I foolishly signed up to at the same time (giving various talks, reviewing a book proposal, etc.), plus the sale of my company, Six to Start, has closed. So I’m doubly clear. Feels weird. But good.

So, what’s next?

I have a few projects I’m eager to start, including an event series for people in Edinburgh involved in everything immersive (theatre, games, escape rooms, museums, VR, etc.), but realistically that’ll have to wait until next year. And I have a long piece I want to write that has absolutely nothing to do about gamification, on the disappointment that is the V&A Dundee museum, but I figured I should take more and just a few days off from serious writing to clear my head. Hence this not-so-serious newsletter!

Games-wise, I’m finally playing Control now that it has actual difficulty settings. The story isn’t quite as mindblowing as I’d been led to believe – chalk that up to spending far too long reaching the SCP wiki – and there’s way too much repetition in combat and environments, but it’s still a fun ride. Especially if you make yourself invulnerable.

I’ve been working my way through Ursula Le Guin’s entire opus. I began with The Lathe of Heaven because it was added to my library’s eBook catalog, then zoomed through The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and the first four Earthsea books.

I’ve been told to read Le Guin for years; she’s influenced so many of my favourite including Iain Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Naomi Alderman. But when I tried to read The Left Hand of Darkness many years ago, I just bounced off it. Which is fine! There is a time and a place for every book. This time, I’ve loved every word of hers’ I’ve read. In fact, it’d be hard to overstate how influential and radicalising her writing has been on my thinking, especially during the pandemic, and especially as workers have begun to exert their power.

Reading Le Guin feels like I’m discovering one of my favourite writers as if for the first time. There’s a strange sense of familiarity and consonance, but not so much that I don’t feel challenged. And I think of all the authors I’ve read from the 60s and 70s and 80s, her ideas feel the freshest, sci-fi or not.

Another book highlight this year has been George Saunder’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which combines classic Russian short stories with a masterclass in fiction writing. Turns out the great Russian writers were pretty good – who knew?! I took a lot of comfort from Saunders’ advice, which has a lot of specifics but ultimately boils down to “find out what you’re good at, and stop trying to be a ‘great’ writer”.

On TV, we watched all five seasons of The Bureau, a French spy show that’s been doing the rounds of media hipsters and podcasters. It’s the best multi-season show I’ve seen since Halt and Catch Fire and incidentally features some very fine examples of storytelling-by-computer-screen. I remain beguiled by desktop simulator and phone simulator games and stories and I wish we had more.

We also watched a lot of movies – you can see them all on my Letterboxd! Highlights include The Conversation, Kajillionaire, Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, After Life, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, pretty much all of Ozu’s movies, and surprisingly, Luca. If you want an uncomplicated, sunny coming-of-age story with a delightful score by the guy who Beasts of the Southern Wild (Dan Romer), this is the movie for you.

I’m about to check out a new Disney+ show, The Mysterious Benedict Society, which I can legitimately claim is research for work (but not for Disney), keep reading through Le Guin, and start outlining my V&A Dundee thing.

Keep well everyone,

Adrian

The Cultures Ep 323: Virtual Travel Instructions

Listen to episode 323 of my weekly podcast with Andrea Phillips and Naomi Alderman:

  • Look for music from the country
  • Search on BBC Sounds (there’s a prog called World Music Road Trip and also sometimes stuff in From Our Own Correspondent)
  • Also try documentaries, especially Storyville
  • Find the best movie you’ve never seen from that country
  • Internet search for recipes from there
  • Look online for specialist ingredients
  • Is there takeaway from there one could get?
  • Can you do a few minutes of language learning via Duolingo etc? Just enough to say hello, goodbye, please and thank you?
  • Who’s their most famous writer? Read a short story
  • Have they ever had a movie up for best foreign picture Oscar, or best short or best documentary?
  • Where would you stay? Pick a hotel. Have a look on Google Street View to see where you “are”
  • Is there a board game (or video game!) from that country to try?
  • What sights would you try to see if you were there? Can you find virtual tours online?
  • What do people drink in a cafè or bar there?
  • Can you learn to sing something that’s popular there or written there?
  • Put the radio on all day from that country
  • Change your Twitter/social media localisation to that country
  • Is there a bath product/perfume/smell from there?