Designs on the future

21st September 2018 at 00:00
As Scotland’s first museum dedicated to design opens, debate is rife about what role cultural institutions can, or should, play in disadvantaged communities. But Emma Seith finds that V&A Dundee is intent on boosting aspirations by collaborating with the city’s schools to foster a culture of creativity

I was born in Dundee and raised in neighbouring Angus; I went to university here and I cut my teeth as a journalist working for publisher D C Thomson. Today, I can hardly recognise the city that gave me my education and career.

Dundee’s transformation is a constant refrain when you speak to people who live and work here. A total of £1 billion is being invested in overhauling the waterfront so that the city can once again feel connected to the River Tay, having been cut off by busy roads and a plethora of ugly concrete buildings.

A further catalyst in transforming how Dundonians see themselves and their city, right from the earliest years onwards, is the opening this week of V&A Dundee, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s first museum outside of London. Education is at the heart of the V&A project, but not just in the traditional sense of getting gaggles of pupils to traipse around it.

The aim is that it will fuel aspirations and even inspire a more project-based, free-form approach to learning in schools.

It’s a boost to a city that still faces many challenges. Some 28 per cent of its children – about 8,000 young people – are growing up in poverty (see figures, opposite). It’s also a place that, for many years, was tagged as the “teenage-pregnancy capital of Europe”.

‘Is this my city?’

Derek Robertson, a lecturer who works with primary student teachers at the University of Dundee and who was raised in Whitfield – one of the housing schemes on the city’s periphery – says he had to pinch himself while on a recent day out at the waterfront: “I was looking at the place, thinking ‘Is this my city?’ ”

He does warn, though, against overhyping the museum as a way of bringing culture to the uneducated masses or suggesting “that families living in deprived areas are philistine”.

To guard against this, V&A Dundee has been reaching out to local people and pupils for a number years. With no objects and no building, its remit has been challenging, but rather than waiting for people to come to them, learning manager Joanna Mawdsley and her team have rolled up their sleeves and delved into the city, seeking out pupils and educators to collaborate with.

The team, which includes a seconded primary teacher, have been to each of the Dundee’s secondaries and virtually every primary in the city of 150,000 residents. They have delivered presentations about the museum, but also come up with ambitious projects, many of which have resulted in designers going into schools to work with pupils. Children are encouraged to see that design is about functionality and improving people’s lives, and that they could follow in the footsteps of the likes of Grant Douglas, a designer with cerebral palsy whose “S’up spoon” – “a spoon for shaky hands” – makes it easier for people with certain disabilities to eat.

In early secondary, pupils in Angus and Dundee have worked in teams with designers to reimagine their schools, pondering what would make them more inspiring places to learn. The museum has also had a time capsule – designed by secondary pupil Luisa Geddes – manufactured by Jaguar, where Scot Ian Callum is director of design. The capsule will be filled with work created by pupils, who were asked to imagine what the cars, houses and fashion of the future would be like. In 2068, when the capsule is opened, they – and possibly their children and grandchildren – will find out how close their visions of the future were to reality.

At Rosebank Primary and Our Lady’s Roman Catholic Primary, V&A Dundee worked with pupils to explore their area’s heritage; the Hilltown, where their schools are situated, used to be known as “bonnet hill” because local people designed and sold the traditional style of hat outside their houses. V&A Dundee arranged for modern-day milliners Sally-Ann Provan and Pea Cooper to work with the children so they could design their own hats, as part of a project that lasted for most of a school year.

When I visited, pupils from Rosebank – along with nine other schools, were preparing to perform a dance at the free V&A Dundee opening ceremony, headlined by Scottish rock band Primal Scream last Friday. Headteacher Jennifer Heffell says Rosebank was inundated with offers from parents to help at the festival, which suggests that the V&A has succeeded in piquing the interest of local families.

But V&A Dundee is clear that all of this work with schools is not just about increasing footfall; it wants to support Scottish schools to foster creativity, too.

‘Powerful’ way of learning

Museum director Philip Long points out that good design has the power to improve lives and inspire entrepreneurs, but “great improvement” could yet be made in raising the profile of design in schools.

“Curriculum education does not necessarily suit all styles of learning and the diversity of young people we have in school,” says Long. “Other ways of learning – working together in teams, in different environments on different projects – can be really powerful.”

This chimes with arguments put forward by US academic Yong Zhao, who has previously made the case for children ceasing to follow a prescribed curriculum; instead, he has argued that pupils would be better served by being tasked with identifying problems that require solving, as well as “inventing their own jobs”.

“We need more creative thinkers and the curriculum is not really giving that to young people in the way you would expect,” says Mawdsley. “We would like to push that a little bit harder. These are not just soft skills but [are] vital for 21st-century jobs.”

For some in Dundee, the V&A and surrounding redevelopment feel remote. Jayne Kelly, a campaigner for more investment in the Lochee area 2 miles away, foresees “a tale of two cities” developing, as she told the BBC on the day that global media outlets were hailing the opening of the new museum.

“There is an element of anger here. We are one of the most deprived areas in Scotland – unfortunately, we’ve got the highest number of drug deaths in Europe – so to think that a building development in the centre is going to help that is unlikely. I mean, we just can’t see it happening up here,” she said.

However, council leader John Alexander emphasises the difference the museum has already made before the doors have even opened. It has, he says, put “a fire in the belly of ordinary Dundonians that was not there” previously, and given them a renewed confidence and sense of pride. “People see this museum as theirs,” says Alexander; those from the youngest age groups, he believes, are going to be its “greatest ambassadors”.

But as I leave the V&A and head to the main shopping area of Dundee, a short walk away, a sense of sadness prevails. No matter how beautiful the new museum is, it cannot obscure the urban decay that blights a huge swathe of the city. With many children in Dundee still living in poverty, was spending £80 million – nearly double the original budget – on a museum the right thing to do?

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland. She tweets @Emma_Seith

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