Co-designing a museum for everyone

Sarah Saunders, Director of Learning and Innovation at the V&A Museum of Design Dundee writes for the Scottish Museums Federation in our latest blog

It’s June 2016 and on Dundee’s beautiful waterfront a truly extraordinary building is taking shape alongside new public spaces, roads, a station and other exciting hotel and retail developments. Designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and opening in 2018, this iconic building will be Scotland’s first design museum.

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When I joined V&A Dundee in 2013 there were only a handful of people in the team and we all knew what a massive challenge we had ahead of us. Looking back it would have felt far more daunting had it not been for the passion, determination and imagination of everyone involved.

I quickly realised the first priority for developing the learning programmes was to listen to and engage communities and individuals locally, giving them more information about the purpose and vision of the museum.

Kengo Kuma’s vision for V&A Dundee is a ‘living room for the city’ and it was this idea that inspired our first community project.  So, where better to start the journey of getting to know our community than by visiting them in their own living rooms, surrounded by the design they love and have chosen, made or personalised?

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The project, A Living Room For The City, enabled people to share photos of their living rooms – or other places where they felt at home – and to start conversations about design and how their spaces made them feel. Engaging with the eight community wards in Dundee, we held workshops where people of all ages and backgrounds designed and made lights for their homes which were then showcased in an exhibition in Abertay University’s Hannah Maclure Centre.

From these early beginnings, we have worked with a range of partners to develop our strategy and pilot programmes. For the local community this included our first Schools Design Challenge which invited all S1 pupils (aged 11 and 12) in Dundee and Angus to come up with ideas of how they would improve their school. The challenge was developed with teachers and Education Scotland. Over 1,000 pupils in 250 teams took part and ten schools were selected to develop prototypes at a Design Jam.


The results were filmed and exhibited in the Overgate shopping centre in March 2016 and at the first Dundee Design Festival in May. So far their designs have been seen by over 40,000 people in person or through our videos online.


Not having a building has been challenging, but equally it has made us more collaborative and enables us to have more visibility in the community.

Our Community Garden project is another example of local engagement, this time working with a local charity called Art Angel, run by and for people with experience of mental health difficulties. We worked with a core group of participants and teamed them up with local architects kennedytwaddle, designer Linsey McIntosh and landscape architects Macfarlane + Associates to co-design a V&A Dundee Community Garden as part of the new waterfront development.

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The participants worked together as a design team to develop the garden concept, from ideas and research to themes, features, seasonal planting, drawings and model making. Through the design process those involved gained skills, confidence, a sense of pride, and were able to share their skills and make effective contributions in gardening, designing and making. They will also be involved with the construction and planting of the garden which will open to the public later this year. For the participants it is an achievement that will no doubt inspire the many thousands of people who will visit and enjoy the garden over the years to come.

V&A Dundee Community Garden 8 - credit Dylan Drummond.JPG

All of these projects have shaped the ethos of our museum. Of everything we have learnt so far, possibly the biggest lesson is  that design can enrich lives – and that anyone can be a designer and use design to have a positive impact on their own life, their community or their organisation.

To find out more about V&A Museum of Design Dundee visit

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