It’s most famously home to Captain Scott’s RRS Discovery and the first V&A museum outside of London, but Dundee has plenty more to offer visitors who wish to learn about Scottish history and art.
Most people will organise their visit around Dundee’s two most notable museums, but there are many more that shouldn’t be overlooked, spotlighting everything from comics to comets, jute to Japanese spider crabs. Dundee’s myriad strengths as a city with a highly rated art college, a rich maritime history and renowned scientific research centres filter into its galleries and museums, creating much more diversity than one might expect for a city of its size. Whether you wish to explore its past as a shipbuilding and jute-manufacturing hub or ponder its future in medical technology and contemporary art, Dundee has something for you.
Few will have missed the fanfare surrounding the launch of the V&A Dundee in September 2018 – fortunately, it lives up to expectations. On entering, it’s hard to know which is the main event – perhaps it’s the permanent (and free entry) Scottish Design Galleries, the highlight of which is the Art Nouveau Mackintosh Tea Room, reconstructed in its entirety using the original oak panels. Or maybe it’s the building itself, designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to resemble Scottish cliffs. Either way, it’s not an experience you’re likely to forget.
Once one of the UK’s major whaling centres, Dundee had a great shipbuilding tradition. In 1900, the Dundee Shipbuilders Company was chosen to build the three-mast Royal Research Ship Discovery, to be captained by a certain Robert Falcon Scott. Designed with a thick, windowless hull, she was to break through the pack ice on her maiden research voyage to the Antarctic. The visitor centre has a comprehensive exhibition on Scott, shipbuilding and Antarctic exploration, but it’s the Discovery itself that steals the show. If you’re also planning to visit the Verdant Works (see below), you can buy a combined ticket, valid for one year.
Historically, Dundee provided the majority of Britain’s jute, and this museum provides a glimpse into the history of the city’s working class, offering interactive activities, films and multimedia computer displays. This fascinating museum is a great spot for a family outing, as it is engaging for all ages.
A stunning Victorian Gothic building that recently celebrated its 150th birthday, the McManus celebrates the history of Dundee and Scottish traditional painting. Completely restored in 2010, the eight galleries cover all facets of the city’s history, from the Tay Rail Bridge Disaster to the Beano. There’s even a small display on William McGonagall, Dundee’s best “worst” poet. Kids will love the natural history section, while kids at heart will enjoy a collection of curios – shortbread tins, silver trinkets and Dundee Football Club memorabilia. Oh, and it’s free entry.
A local fixture since 1999, the multifaceted Dundee Contemporary Arts is an unmitigated artistic playground complete with two contemporary art galleries, a cinema, a print studio, a visual research centre and a café-bar. The galleries feature numerous works from a range of acclaimed local and international artists. Although each artwork is as unique as the next — video artists, textile designers, illustrators and so much more — they all share the commonality of a life-affirming sense of wonderment.
Virtually unknown even to locals, the Dundee Transport Museum opened in 2014 in temporary premises, with plans to claim permanent residence in the Maryfield Tram Depot in the near future. It’s guaranteed to be a big hit with children, who can climb onto most of the cars and buses on display. There’s also a horse-drawn ambulance, a recreation of Dundee’s first flying machine, and a perfect replica of the car used in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). Check the website for listings – previous events have included motor shows and toy train weekends for children (and big kids, too).
Mostly geared toward younger science enthusiasts, Dundee Science Centre has a host of hands-on, interactive displays designed to educate and entertain. The centre has collaborated with the local university and hospital to create a permanent exhibition on medical technology – kids can perform an ultrasound scan, try a mock surgery or see their veins up close under a near-infrared scanner. The centre also hosts the annual Dundee Science Festival – three weeks of talks and exhibitions on topics as diverse as food science and medical art.
Dundee’s other famous ship is a very different beast to the Discovery. At almost 200 years old, it’s one of the UK’s oldest surviving wooden ships and Scotland’s last remaining navy sailboat. It was launched in 1824 but saw little active service, mostly being used for training and eventually acting as the headquarters ship for Dundee’s senior naval officer during both World Wars. For this reason, it’s fantastically preserved and well suited to its current occupation, which is to host an interactive exhibition on the golden age of sailing (and the occasional nautical-themed birthday party).
A Scottish museums list would be incomplete without a castle. Broughty Castle is Dundee’s, and, despite its relatively modest size, it cuts an imposing figure on the banks of the River Tay. The museum, which has just celebrated its 50th birthday, tells the story of the people and wildlife of the Broughty Ferry area. Also worth checking out is the Orchar Gallery, which contains Victorian Scottish art from the collection of prominent Dundee businessman James Guthrie Orchar. Look out for dolphins from the observation post.
One of the city’s stranger attractions, this museum houses the zoology collection of Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, the first professor of Biology at the University of Dundee. Specimens include an astonishing collection of skulls, taxidermy and various critters pickled in jars. Since 2016, the museum has been working on digitising its collection and has made the resulting scans available on its website – if you own a 3D printer, you can download and print your own chimpanzee skull or nautilus shell. As a working university lab, the museum keeps limited opening hours – check the website for details.
Britain’s first purpose-built public observatory takes its name from linen manufacturer John Mills, who gifted the money for its construction in his will. The observatory features a seven-metre-high (23-foot-high) papier mâché dome housing a 40-centimetre-wide (16-inch-wide) Dobsonian reflector telescope. Entry is free, but there is a small charge for large planned group visits and public events, which include planetarium shows and family workshops. The gift shop is a treasure trove of NASA-branded goods, space-themed books and telescopes. It’s also worth taking in the atmospheric woods of surrounding Balgay Hill, particularly when the leaves turn during autumn.