It’s hard to believe a decade has passed since Dundee’s beloved McManus Galleries reopened to the public following a multi-million-pound restoration project that spanned three years.
In those 10 years, the city centre attraction – which originally opened in 1867 as The Albert Institute – has firmly stationed itself in the hearts of Dundonians of all generations, many of whom felt more than a little bereft while it was hidden away for its impressive metamorphosis.
The McManus closed its doors in late 2005 and officially reopened to the public on Sunday February 28 2010, following months of work rehanging its art and mounting displays in the newly-transformed galleries. Such was the excitement surrounding the event – The Courier reported – that the first visitor arrived more than an hour before the doors were unlocked. By the time the doors opened, a queue of almost 200 people was snaking round the iconic Victorian building.
In a publication celebrating the museum’s 150th anniversary, Billy Gartley, head of cultural services at Leisure and Culture Dundee, described the McManus as “a dynamic museum fit for the 21st Century”. He believes the £12m restoration was a key part of Dundee’s journey of cultural renaissance: “It’s a confident city now on that journey,” says Billy.
“You can punctuate Dundee Contemporary Arts in 1999 and the redevelopment of the McManus – these things need to keep going. I don’t think we stop at the V&A, you think: What’s the next thing we could be doing?”
Plans for V&A Dundee were in their infancy when the McManus returned to business as usual. Kengo Kuma’s design emerged triumphant later in 2010 and it was to be a further eight years before the vision was finally realised.
Hopes that the new “must-see” McManus would achieve healthy visitor numbers year-on-year turned out to be a reality, with around 170,000 arriving to explore on an annual basis – more than originally projected. Since 2010, it has welcomed 1.7 million people.
Built on former marshland immediately north of the old city walls of Dundee, the Albert Square building was beset by problems as it aged.
Billy explains: “When it was ripped out it didn’t just need cosmetic work – it needed the piling because, as we all know, it’s built on marshland. The structural work enabled the redevelopment of the building.”
The project was designed by Glasgow-based architects PagePark and one of the biggest changes was the main entrance being switched from the north side to a new south entrance off a newly pedestrianised Meadowside.
Another feature was the introduction of a top-lit atrium, complete with a lift and a spectacular staircase mirroring the original winding staircase on the other side of the building.
The extensive project also included a new retail area and cafe with an outdoor terrace; the opening-up of gallery spaces and the introduction of learning suites. The gardens and pedestrian precinct were also given an upgrade to make it as visitor-friendly as possible.
The first major exhibition came in August 2010 with the McManus hosting Titian’s masterpiece Diana and Actaeon on its Scottish tour, marking the first anniversary of it being acquired for the nation’s collection.
Billy goes on: “There have been big V&A exhibitions, the Royal Collection and the Roman Empire with The British Museum, we have also worked with the Tate.”
As well as gems from the museum’s own collection, there have been many outside collaborations over the years including 2012’s Ten Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration from The Royal Collection and The V&A’s Selling Dreams: One Hundred Years of Fashion Photography.
The McManus celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2017 with a year of special events that culminated in a publication telling its story so far.
Another highlight was the gallery rebranding itself the McMenace in 2018 to mark the Bash Street’s Back at the McMenace exhibition, in collaboration with publishers DC Thomson. This celebrated 80 years of the Beano comic.
Exhibitions to look forward to this year include A Love Letter To Dundee: Joseph McKenzie Photographs 1964-1987, which runs from March 21 into next year and Time And Tide: The Transformation Of The Tay from March 27 to November 15. Billy also reveals that some other treasures from the collection may be making a welcome return to display by spring 2021 – but this is being kept under wraps just now.
The McManus is a place where you can discover the city’s story – Billy says it truly is “the people’s museum”.
While tourism is a key factor in any attraction’s success, its roots most certainly lie closer to home. He goes on: “Sometimes in Dundee we don’t realise that we have a world-class collection. It’s important that people know it’s part of their city – it’s their collection.”