Thanks to the V&A, Dundee will no longer be the butt of a nation’s jokes | Kevin McKenna

The new museum adds to the proud line of achievements of this unjustly reviled city

Even in our ritual besmirching and humiliation of Dundee, we treated the city unequally. Other towns and cities blighted by social disadvantage found a sympathetic response and sometimes outrage when annually it was revealed how badly we permitted people to live in this affluent country. The health inequalities that have long existed in parts of Glasgow have kept the UK’s film and documentary sector afloat these last 20 years or so and rescued us journalists and commentators with a steady supply of numbers and testimonies.

Glasgow is a big, brassy city and its advocates are never slow and rarely quiet about proclaiming its virtues and bewailing its problems. Not Dundee. Instead, we turned this city into a national joke. When, some years ago, statistics were released detailing the extent of underage maternity rates in Dundee they provided gags for a generation of professional comedians and amateur clowns who had never visited this city.

The statistics that described multi-deprivation in some parts of Dundee were added merely as an afterthought in grim stories about Glasgow. Yet while my city was reckoned to have initiatives, spangly projects and international sporting events all wrapped up in “wur culture” to dislodge the negative headlines, we thought of Dundee as beyond redemption. But it was never like this, not even close.

Perhaps we can trace the fight-back to rescue Dundee’s reputation to 1986 when the Discovery, the ship that carried Scott and Shackleton on their first, successful Antarctic expedition, returned to the city that built her. Yet still the jokes and the ignorance continued and proud Dundonians who were making a difference in other places, among new friends, bore the brunt of their wit with fortitude and good humour. This was the city that founded a newspaper empire of global renown and a comic-book industry that inspired generations of artists and illustrators. It was the city of the Tay bridges, for heaven’s sake, and a shipbuilding and maritime powerhouse. It was the home of a world-class textile industry that became so successful that jute, an Indian fabric, was associated only with it.

Dundee gave us the Average White Band, the Associates, Michael Marra and the author AL Kennedy. It’s currently the centre of the games industry, the coolest and edgiest sector in the world. It continues to provide big men and women for newspapers and television, all of whom I bow to. It never really had anything to be ashamed of and much for which the rest of Scotland ought to have been proud long before the V&A Museum of Design opened this weekend. I can’t even begin to figure out why we bullied this city and its citizens for having social problems that were evident to the same degree in many other cities across the UK.

And I’m not saying either that the V&A will somehow wave a wand over Dundee and make things better just yet, but dear God in heaven it will surely make a difference. When I visited Dundee last month to see the V&A, I met several Dundonians from an assortment of backgrounds. None talked about money being better spent on hospitals and schools. Instead, there was a recognition that relatively little of the £80m raised to build it had come from the civic purse. There was pride in this building, too, laced with a measure of relief that it was something beautiful. One local artist told me that as the design of the V&A first began to emerge a series of pictures in the Dundee Courier it took the city’s breath away.

Japanese architect Kengo Kuma inside the V&A Dundee.
Japanese architect Kengo Kuma talks of the V&A Dundee becoming ‘the city’s living room’. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

A sense of social outreach, of making this a living, breathing part of Dundee, is embedded in its curved, concrete walls. Its Japanese creator, Kengo Kuma, has talked of it becoming the city’s living room, but it is already more than that. Mike Galloway, Dundee’s director of city development, has helped drive the V&A project since its inception. He told me that the companies and contractors chosen to develop the waterfront around the V&A had to sign a pledge to employ local people and to pay them Scotland’s enhanced living wage.

Even when he encountered resistance to this wage guarantee, he was able to prove that this carried long-term economic benefits and stability as well as increased productivity.

When he talked about the inspiration of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, he cited what many forget: that this Basque city in northern Spain was also regarded as the country’s school dunce. The projected estimates for the Guggenheim were about 500,000 visitors a year; very quickly, that became 1.5 million, many of them people who simply can’t stop returning every year. “An assessment of its economic impact found that the Guggenheim was a prominent factor in persuading companies to invest in the city; often, it just tipped the scales in favour of Bilbao.”

Within the walls of the V&A Dundee, families will be encouraged to spend hours here and not feel pressure to spend money for the pleasure. They can bring their own food and fire up their electronic devices and simply linger here out of the rain or away from the troubles of life. The art and artefacts may inspire and soothe them but the building itself will probably already have done that.

In the city beyond, there will still be unemployment and health inequality and low wages; some schools will continue to encounter poverty of ambition and an absence of self-esteem. A celebration of design also salutes the power of imagination and creativity to solve problems and the willingness to embrace risk. This may yet prove to be the V&A’s greatest gift to Dundee.

• Kevin McKenna is an Observer columnist


Kevin McKenna

The GuardianTramp

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