Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Valuable and Attractive

For a time in my life (in the 1970s) I worked for the Royal Navy Supply and Transport Service (the RNSTS). In those days V&A meant only one thing "Valuable and Attractive". This term applied to all the stores items that were likely to be pilfered so they required special care regimes and security. Watches, clocks, precious metals etc. V&A now means something different to me (Victoria and Albert) but the eclectic stockpiles and the inventory values may be similarly labeled. So we have a load of mostly old Scottish stuff laid out in a purpose built new museum on the banks of the murky River Tay.

It's OK. Dundee's new V&A building is impressive, it's big on the outside, seems big on the inside but once explored isn't really so big at all - but it remains impressive for other reasons. Perched on the river bank, challenging and fun to walk through and giving up impressive river views and vistas form unexpected angles, it's a unique space. It's a strange mix of striking form but fuzzy function and there's an obvious conflict between the two. The great halls of older museums with long and winding displays, galleries like mazes and rows of cabinets stuffed with exhaustive examples of inventoried history are not in here. It's all very tight. This is a modern puzzle that questions how we observe and how much we might actually retain. In that it's honest, most people don't study very much nor care either. We pass through. So it's a big box full of Polaroid snaps of the past, quick sound bites and snippets, stuff that the good people can quickly browse over and then forget with an over priced coffee and a wander around the gift shop. There's room for the past but not much, not as much as you think and as for the future, it's here but trapped and hidden in the quirky design. 

I'm imagining the newly deposited bus loads of tourists and pensioners exploring the site are all thinking something along the lines of "is that all there is?" That's not because the building is a disappointment it's more because it's main but understated theme is gathering in people rather than displaying things. I'm judging this based on the comparative space given to people over artifacts. Visitors have more free space than things do. I was struck by how many people were just standing about on the common stairways, cafes and spaces looking at...other people doing the same thing. We are the museum pieces in this modern hall.

The main display (a pay as you go one) is based around ocean liners, I'm not sure what his has to do with Dundee, seems an odd opening exhibition choice. The main (free) display gallery looks at Scottish design. It's a hotch potch of Oor Wullie, Alexander McQueen, the Forth Bridges, CRM and so on. A quick canter and scatter-gun of types with no real insights given. A bit like the curator's are mumbling  "this is what we in Scotland all got up to on our weekend design course when nobody else was looking, sorry to bother you, nothing much to see here".

Once the opening "busy spell" is over a further visit may be beneficial, just to see it less crowded and in a more measured way, with less expectation. I do like it but it's very much a marvelous jaggy jigsaw with a few bits missing.

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