Designing a new way of understanding the value museums have to everyone - Leonie Bell

Why do we visit museums? What do they tell us about our past and future, and about ourselves? These questions are urgent for the cultural sector, as we all continue recovering from the impacts of Covid and adjust to the changing priorities of audiences and the cost-of-living crisis.

Museums need to speak to us. They need to engage us with what they display but also how they display it. The past few years have seen real progress in our understanding of the stories we tell and do not tell through our objects and interpretation, particularly in how we represent the histories and voices of people of colour and other underrepresented communities.

As Scotland’s design museum, V&A Dundee has a very particular role to play here and one I’ve been excited about since well before joining the museum as Director. Our nation’s design histories were not told together in any gallery or museum before V&A Dundee opened, a shocking gap given Scotland’s rich history and international links in this area. And since opening we haven’t stopped investigating those stories, always looking to further develop how we engage people with design.

This collaborative spirit is at the heart of three exhibitions we are currently working on, one that is already open to the public and two that are upcoming soon. Sincerely, Valentines – From Postcards to Greetings Cards (until January 8, 2023) explores how the family firm Valentines capitalised on rapid developments in photography, printing and tourism in the early 20th century to popularise the holiday postcard.

Mhairi Maxwell, V&A Dundee curator, with Andrew Valentine and Stephanie Kerr of People’s Postcode Lottery at the Sincerely, Valentines exhibition at V&A Dundee. Picture: Alan Richardson

The exhibition was made possible by the support of the Valentine family and, following two public call-outs, more than 40 families with connections to the company. Those important oral histories uncovered the crucial role women played in the life of the factory and the many different experiences of working for one of Dundee’s largest employers. I am proud that the exhibition, developed with the University of St Andrews and curatorial practice panel, and supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, brings the voices of Dundonians into their design museum.

Building on that openness and engagement are two very different engagement projects that will contribute directly to our next two major exhibitions, Plastic: Remaking Our World (October 29, 2022 to February 5, 2023) and Tartan (April 1, 2023 to January 14, 2024).

The Beach Plastic Challenge is giving primary schools around Scotland’s coast the opportunity to take part in our Plastic exhibition by collecting waste from their nearest beach. School pupils are invited to clean up plastic from their beach that could then be featured in the exhibition or the museum’s learning programme. The project aims to help pupils learn about issues surrounding marine plastics and litter, as well as exploring how museum exhibitions are curated.

The People’s Tartan looks ahead to next year, inviting the public to contribution to our landmark Tartan exhibition. We want to showcase seemingly ordinary objects that formed important parts of people’s lives, whether they were a 1970s punk dressed in tartan, a proud member of the Tartan Army travelling around the world to Scotland football matches, or have collected tartan homewares or everyday clothing.

Director of V&A Dundee, Leonie Bell.

These projects are all hugely different, but at their core have the same value and principles, of creating exhibitions with people and for people, and of designing a new way of understanding the value museums have to everyone.

Leonie Bell is Director of V&A Dundee. Find out more at www.vam.ac.uk/dundee

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