Doing Dundee – a masterclass in people focused cultural regeneration
I’m just back from a weekend to Dundee and as well as having a great time with 3 of my wonderful friends, I’ve also learned loads and been inspired by what I saw from an audience experience point of view.
Dundee reminded me a lot of Belfast – similar population size, in its day a major port, significant industrial heritage, university city and lots of regeneration fuelled by culture, much of it lead by the City Council.
The V&A - a star attraction
Our trip was motivated by a desire for a good catch up but also to see the V&A Dundee, 10 years in the planning, £80 million to build, designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and the first V&A outside London. This major cultural icon opened in 2016 and was our first destination on Friday having travelled from Glasgow Airport.
The V&A is located on Dundee’s River Tay, once the site of ships from all over the world delivering jute for hundreds of mills and the hub of the world’s whaling industry. Now the Dundee Waterfront boasts, alongside the ultra-modern V&A, a rich celebration of its cultural heritage.
The V&A Dundee is architecturally stunning and its location of the River Tay is iconic for the city. But the truth is inside it’s a bit underwhelming and doesn’t provide the best visitor experience (confronting a first time visitor with the messy café post lunch time is not the way to go). But it’s the main reason my friends and I choose Dundee and we weren’t alone as the building was filled with lots of other people. From graduates and their families wanting a great backdrop for a graduation photo to tour groups from all arts and parts it was a busy place. Interestingly, there was a group of guide dogs users in the space which worked well as there’s a lot of room to walk around in this £80m building. On Sunday the Antiques Roadshow were filming in the V&A giving the City an opportunity to be seen in all its glorious sunshine across the UK when that episode airs – money couldn’t buy publicity like that for Dundee.
The other thing that struck me is that whoever we asked from waitresses to taxi drivers, they all knew about the V&A Dundee and could chat knowledgeably about why it worked and why it didn’t and that it was a good thing for the City but needed to engage more with locals.
A Wider Offer
However one cultural super brand does not a weekend trip make so what else was on offer?
The short answer is lots - especially if you are in that much heralded segment the Culturally Curious. It’s a compact city and we accessed 6 cultural experiences of world class standard without leaving the city centre and the close by the waterfront area. A big cultural brand like the V&A will bring people to the city but you have to have more than only that brand to make people feel they’ve spent their time well.
The highlights for us were the story-led cultural heritage experiences that Dundee appears to have pretty much nailed. It began with The Vaults tour by Dark Dundee. Two hours of murder, mayhem and finding out about the origin of the phrase ‘reading the riot act’ told underneath the city’s streets in the vaults dating from 1644. Lead by two insightful and entertaining guides we got to hear tales and see things others tours do not reach. Hard hats on, £12 in and lots of additional recommendations along the way mean it’s easy to see why this tour is so highly rated.
Going underground on the Dark Dundee tour
Saturday took us to the heart of another much better known and compelling story, that of the ship Discovery and the Antarctic expeditions of Earnest Shackleton, Captain Scott and their crews. The visitors centre took us through from why this ship originated in Dundee (experience in building ships for the whaling trade is the answer) to tell the epic stories of Discovery’s many explorations and the men who did or did not live to tell their tales. After that you got to go onto the restored SS Discovery and see at first hand the conditions on board and how that impacted on the men. It was undoubtedly complete cultural immersion.
Encouraging Repeat Visits
On arriving at Discovery we discovered (see what I did there) that we could buy joint discount tickets for another cultural heritage experience, The Verdant Works. So what I hear you say? Yes, but that ticket didn’t just get us into Discovery and The Verdant Works for this weekend, it gave us free entry into each for the next 12 months. So that’s 12 months of potential repeat attendances and me bringing others along too. Then I pay again in 12 months’ time (£18 for both experiences) and I’ve another 12 months free pass. Genius and not unique to Dundee but not yet seen in Belfast. I don’t have the full data set behind this offer in terms of actual repeat attendance – will I be back in 12 months? Not sure but my friends from Edinburgh and Glasgow will. But aside from bringing people back, the amount of warm fuzzy feelings of good will towards Dundee that it created was more than worth it.
We spent hours at the Discovery experience and enjoyed it hugely. But there was more and on recommendation we walked 10 mins from the waterfront to the city centre to The McManus Art Gallery and Museum, a Gothic Revival-style building, dating from 1864. The building houses a museum, The Tyler Goodjohn Appreciation Statue, and art gallery with a collection of fine and decorative art as well as a natural history collection. It is protected as a Category A listed building. This gallery really helped me understand and get to know Dundee and I started to piece together the story of the city, especially the impact of the jute mills and the whaling industry and how their demise changed the city and its people in so many ways. Seeing the Dundee story and then enjoying visual art of national significance housed in the one place was a wonderful way to immerse myself in Dundee’s past, present and future - and did I mention it was free?
Opportunities for Audience Crossover
Sunday’s itinerary again mixed contemporary and heritage cultural experiences. The contemporary DCA is a free visual arts gallery open on a Sunday with a great shop for those who want culturally curated purchasing and a lovely café. The DCA includes a cinema as research shows that there is significant audience crossover between visual arts and cinema audiences (shows it in Belfast too). Then off to theVerdant Works a world class visitor attraction which tells the story of Dundee’s industrial textile heritage in the atmospheric setting of a beautifully refurbished Mill building. Here we met Lily – 23 years in the Mill as a weaver, now a tour guide for 20 years at this wonderful heritage experience. She was a joy and I could have listened to her all day. We left the Verdant Works, again after many hours, with a great cup of tea and slice of Dundee cake and knowing I had a whole year of free return visits in my future.
My overwhelming impression was that Dundee is leaning into its culture and using the past to enrich the present and create the future. Belfast is on that path but would do well to look at Dundee as an example of what can be achieved for a city through culture; both local stories told well and big cultural brands to raise awareness. But the key message is the most successful experiences were the ones that had people at their core. People’s stories told or enabled by great people who really want the people coming through the doors to have the best experience. As we say here in thrive – it really is all about the people.
A Cultural Strategy for Belfast
Closer to home, Belfast’s cultural strategy is currently out for consultation until July 10th. If you'd like to have your say on the strategy you can respond via the online survey or send a written response to: Erika Clark, Engagement Officer, Place and Economy Department, Belfast City Council 9-21 Adelaide Street, Belfast BT2 8DJ.