The McManus Galleries has been a part of my life for as long as I’ve had the wherewithal to get on a bus and find my way around Dundee city centre.
Saturday afternoons were filled with buying stationery supplies from Woolies in the Murraygate, then heading round to Albert Square to wander the galleries (maybe with a side visit to the Barrack Street Museum too), always terrified of the scold’s bridle, that menacing iron mask, and dicing with death by walking under the Tay Whale.
I’m not alone. The majority of Dundonians have their own memories of the building and will be looking forward to getting back in from Tuesday.
This isn’t the first time we’ve had to walk past George Gilbert Scott’s glorious exterior and know the doors were closed. There was a period of three years, between 2006 and 2009, when it was closed for refurbishment, creating a modern interior and underpinning the building, which had been built on marshland.
The McManus has gone to strength to strength in the intervening decade. The museum and art gallery picked up the ultimate accolade of best visitor attraction in early March 2020 at the Scottish Thistle awards but with lockdown happening shortly after, didn’t have the chance to benefit. The trophy is in the foyer, beside the café.
On the frontline from Tuesday are the teams who welcome visitors, work in the café, the shop, and help visitors to navigate the galleries.
Paul Campbell is engagement officer, with responsibility for anything front of house. When the first lockdown came, he says the team used its time to make a reopening plan, in line with Scottish Government guidelines.
“That involved a much deeper clean, and more often,” he says. “We also instigated the one-way system through the galleries and obviously the wearing of face masks and distancing.
“We had to make a safe environment for staff and visitors, but also allow anyone coming into the building to have as enjoyable an experience as before.”
Working at the McManus is something of a dream job for Paul, who was brought here as a child by his mum. His favourite exhibit hasn’t been on show for a while, maybe for good reason.
“There used to be shrunken head in the galleries,” he says. “I was mostly scared of it but totally fascinated. When I started to work here, I was able to go and see it in the collections unit. It brought back good memories and the memories of being scared of it!”
The temporary exhibitions for 2020 will be extended to October in the case of A Love Letter to Dundee: Joseph McKenzie Photographs 1964-1987, while Time and Tide: The Transformation of The Tay is scheduled to stay until early 2022.
“We are lucky that our exhibitions are generated from own collections,” says Billy Gartley, head of Cultural Services at Leisure and Culture Dundee. “A lot of people from Dundee managed to see the exhibitions but many haven’t, and of course people haven’t been able to travel to the city. Extending them will allow them to get a much wider audience.”
“There used to be shrunken head in the galleries. I was mostly scared of it, but totally fascinated. When I started to work here, I was able to go and see it in the collections unit. It brought back good memories and the memories of being scared of it!”
Dundee’s vast collection of objects, around 150,000, are in the hands of curators and conservators, working mainly behind the scenes but enjoying occasional public appearances to showcase their work.
Becky Jackson-Hunt is conservator at the McManus and was planning the much delayed spring clean when we visited. “When all the team gets in we’ll give everything it’s usual annual clean. Once they’re on show they are cleaned of course and given light dusting.”
The McManus has objects stretching back more than 150 years, when it opened as The Albert Institute.
“The stores are key to making sure we preserve them properly,” she adds. “Everything is prone to decay of course, but what we can do is provide the right environment. When objects are not on display, they are kept in the dark. We also make sure they are dust-free as dust can degrade objects.”
One of Becky’s favourite objects is the skiff, a central feature of Time and Tide. As a rower herself, and you can see her rowing in her own boat on the Tay in the exhibition film, she is keen to find out more about the skiff.
“We know that she was in a race in the 1890s,” says Becky. “There were a lot of boats on the Tay and we can trace them through trophies and newspaper archives, where they’ll appear in reports of Broughty Ferry boating races. She has appeared once so far, but if anyone has more information, we’d love to know.”
Everything is prone to decay of course, but what we can do is provide the right environment. When objects are not on display, they are kept in the dark. We also make sure they are dust-free as dust can degrade objects.”
When Time and Tide was one week away from opening, the first lockdown was announced.
“My colleagues and I wrapped the objects back up to protect them,” say Gareth Jackson-Hunt, museum services leader. “When we came back in July, we thought that was our time but we had no idea we would close again. The exhibition is about the transformation of the Tay and it was scheduled to coincide with Scotland’s Year of Coastal Waters in 2020. Thank goodness that’s been extended into 2021.”
Walking down a familiar street
The McManus has exhibitions planned around three years ahead, but the next big event, planned for November, is one that will resonate with many locals who have memories of the museum pre-refurbishment.
With the working title of The Street at McManus, this is a partnership project with Dundee Rep and will see a concept street built in the galleries.
As part of that, the beloved pub and shop exhibits will be taken out of stores and recreated. They might not be exactly as we remember them, but they will provide some high-octane nostalgia for many Dundonians who were saddened when they didn’t make an appearance when the McManus reopened following refurbishment.
No pressure then Gareth Jackson-Hunt.
“We are bringing out some old favourites that people remember, like the shop and the bar, but it’s been 40 years since the original retail and licensing exhibition, so we’re bringing that up to date. We’ll also have shop fronts for a shoe shop, a toy shop, a pawn shop, and Draffens (department store). It will be an opportunity to see some incredible costumes and objects.”
Billy Gartley says that it’s also a good time to turn the spotlight on retail, which has been going through a difficult time for the past few years, compounded by the recent forced closures.
“There are so many changes to the High Street just now. It’s topical so we’re working hard on making that exhibition as lively a reflection of Dundee retail through the ages as we can.
“I’m sure people will be delighted to see the pub and the shop again. It’s always something that gets mentioned to me.”