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Hit or miss? All 8 Dundee V&A exhibitions reviewed and rated

We look back at eight ambitious exhibitions since V&A Dundee opened in 2018.

Mary Quant V&A Exhibition.
Mary Quant V&A Exhibition.

The dedicated team at V&A Dundee has put on eight massive exhibitions in the five years since it opened.

From R2-D2 and a sea-surviving tiara to miniskirts and a whole load of tartan, we have revisited all eight temporary exhibitions.

All the displays have been ambitious, but which ones really lit up our imaginations.

And did any miss the mark?

Let’s find out.

1. Ocean Liners: Speed and Style

The Ocean Liners exhibition at V&A Dundee. Image: DC Thomson.

Recap: Running from September 15 2018 to February 24 2019, Ocean Liners was V&A Dundee’s maiden voyage of exhibitions.

This exhibition looked at the design elements of one of the 20th century’s most iconic symbols, the ocean liner, from the 1859 steamship The Great Eastern to the launch of QE2 in 1969.

Tiara from 1909, which belonged to Lady Marguerite Allan (1873-1957). Image: David Mirzoeff/PA Wire.

Hit or miss? Miss, sadly. This exhibition was all set for sailaway success; however, it received criticism for being passive, with few interactive elements.

And after the build up of a brand new museum, the general mood was one of underwhelm; perhaps this exhibition was a victim of its own hype?

However, by focusing on the compelling stories of sailing, sinking and survival, it helped draw a significant proportion of the target-busting 830,000 visitors to the museum in its first year, and made the most of the museum’s ship-inspired design.

Anchors aweigh!

2. Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt

The Videogames exhibition showed V&A Dundee wasn’t playing around. Image: DC Thomson.

Recap: Dundee is the gaming capital of Scotland, with world-famous games like Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto coming out of the city, so it made total sense for the V&A to follow Ocean Liners – a tribute to its Waterfront side – with Videogames, in homage to the city the museum faces.

Running from April 20 to September 8 2019, this exhibition looked at the creative process behind videogames, featuring original design, concept art and prototypes.

Nadia Vidinova has a shot at one of the interactive exhibits. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson.

Hit or miss? Hit! This exhibition showed that the folks at V&A Dundee were listening to their visitors.

The super-interactive nature of Videogames more than made up for the more lumbering nature of Ocean Liners, and seemed to attract many more young people to the space.

Clearly, playing to the local audience is key to V&A Dundee’s success.

3. Hello, Robot: Design between Human and Machine

Star Wars actor Jimmy Vee with the original R2-D2. Image: V&A Dundee.

Recap: You know what they say – if in doubt, bring in a famous face! Or in V&A Dundee’s case, a famous display panel.

This exhibition was called Hello, Robot, but might as well have been called ‘The R2-D2 one’, as the famous robot from the Star Wars franchise drew in hoards of sci-fi fans from November 2 2019 to February 9 2020.

Across four rooms, visitors were asked to think about the future of man and machine – how we will inevitably coexist, and what that’ll look like.

Retro robots paved the way for the real-life thing decades later. Image: Dougie Nicolson/DC Thomson.

Hit or miss? Hit. Dynamic and socially conscious but still bright, colourful and approachable, this exhibition perfectly demonstrated the ways that design directly impacts our future.

4. Mary Quant

The Mary Quant exhibition at V&A Dundee. Image: DC Thomson.

Recap: Celebrating one of the most beloved fashion icons of the 1960s, the Mary Quant exhibition was the first international retrospective of the revolutionary designer.

It had an extended run at V&A Dundee from August 27 2020 to January 17 2021, thanks to the multiple Covid lockdowns during the show.

Mary Quant (foreground), with models showing her new shoe creations. Image: V&A Dundee.

Hit or miss? Miss – only because, thanks to the Covid lockdowns, we all missed it! Just as the Mary Quant collection captured a moment of the ’60s that those who were there never want to forget, its exhibition in Dundee captured a moment in 2020 that most of us don’t care to remember.

5. Night Fever: Designing Club Culture

Night Fever took hold at V&A Dundee. Image: Steve Brown/V&A Dundee.

Recap: A foray into nights gone by, Night Fever made a scene of V&A Dundee from June 1 2021 to January 9 2022.

Hit or miss? Hit! Informative video presentations, immersive soundscapes and visually stunning scraps of history came together to delight modern-day clubbers and nostalgic ‘back in the day’ers alike.

6. Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer

Michael Clark in Charles Atlas’s Hail the New Puritan, 1986. Image: Publicity.

Recap: Much like the Mary Quant exhibition, this curation based on choreographer Michael Clark was the first of its kind, and ran from March 5 to September 4 2022.

A blend of punk, pop culture and ballet, it explored his influences – including David Bowie and Patti Smith – as well as his creative process, and the mark he left on the Scottish dance world.

Lorena Randi and Victoria Insole in Before and After The Fall, 2001. Image: Publicity.

Hit or miss? Hit! Lively, with a clear chronological journey, and giving the visitor the satisfaction of a deeply-explored and impactful story, Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer got the thumbs up from us.

7. Plastics: Remaking Our World

Precious Plastics – an exhibit at the V&A in Dundee. Image: V&A Dundee.

Recap: Sitting directly on the Tay, it’s hard for the V&A not to be mindful of the environment. And as Scotland’s design museum, it seems obvious that it would take a focused look at the material which has been arguably the most significant in the history of design – plastic.

Plastics: Remaking Our World presented all the wonders and woes of this ‘inventive, invaluable, invasive’ substance, from its uses in household goods and clothing to medical equipment and cars.

Running from October 29 2022 to February 5 2023, it took an environmentally conscious tone. Kids and young people were invited to write pledges responding to the  ‘plastic boom’ of the 20th Century and its impact on the climate crisis, which sparked discussion and debate about who is responsible for cleaning up the mess that plastics have made.

The Plastics exhibition showed the many weird and wonderful uses of plastic through the years. Images: V&A Dundee.

Hit or miss? For us, this was a miss. The messaging, while powerful, erred on the side of preachy, and a lot of emphasis was put on individual responsibility when it came to recycling, rather than criticising big business and holding corporations to account.

8. Tartan

Actor and tartan ambassador Graham McTavish sits inside a limited edition 1976 Caledonia Hillman Imp car which features a tartan-inspired interior at the V&A Dundee. Image: Jane Barlow/PA Wire.

Recap: Bringing us right up to date is Tartan, the V&A Dundee’s fifth anniversary exhibition which opened on April 1 2023 and runs until January 14 2024.

An explosion of colour and culture, Tartan is the museum’s most ambitious venture yet, with multiple rooms, giant installations, film, fabric, paintings, artefacts and even a tartan phonebox.

The Glen Affric tartan is the oldest in Scotland. Image: Alan Richardson, Pix-AR.
COLDWARmHOTLINE, 2012, by Michael Sanders. Image: Michael McGurk.

Hit or miss? Helluva hit! Tartan is literally a fabric which weaves together national, political, ethnic and social identities across generations.

Exploring the way Scotland’s national design has impacted the wider world is a perfectly fitting way to ring in five years of the country’s design museum.

The exhibition is the perfect blend of informative, interactive and eye-catching.

Echoing the Mary Quant and Michael Clark exhibitions, it tells a somewhat chronological story, and just like in Hello Robot and Night Fever, there’s enough context to see where we are in that unfolding narrative.

Well played, and happy fifth birthday V&A Dundee!

The V&A Dundee’s ‘We Are 5’ celebrations include free entry to the Tartan exhibition, as well as live performances by Dundee musicians Be Charlotte, Andrew Wasylyk, Kintra and more. See the V&A Dundee website