V&A Dundee's assistant curator talks us through the glamour, romance and tragedy within the Ocean Liners story ahead of the grand opening
Imagine you're living in the early to mid-20th century, have a bit of disposable income in your pocket and fancy travelling the world. We're some time away yet from suffering long queues in stuffy, packed airports, while going through the indignity and paranoia of passport control and security checks. Instead, you have the chance to spend a relaxed time aboard the grandeur of an ocean liner as it glides elegantly through the water.
This lost age, when traversing the globe could be a romantic and glamorous adventure, is set to be resurrected when V&A Dundee unveils its opening temporary exhibition in September. Ocean Liners: Speed and Style not only seeks to recreate the experience of stepping aboard a huge ship, it will show around 250 objects from public and private collections including paintings, sculptures, ship and engine models, wall panels, furniture, fashion, textiles, photographs, posters and film, all of which have been gathered from across America and Europe.
Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, supported by Baillie Gifford and players of the People's Postcode Lottery, at V&A Dundee from 15 September 2018 – 24 February 2019 vandadundee.org/oceanliners / credit: Getty Images 'We really wanted it to be a very experiential exhibition, so the design of the show evokes ocean liners and should make the visitor feel what it was like to go onboard,' says Meredith More, V&A Dundee assistant curator who herself spent some research time on the Queen Mary 2 to get a feel for what life would be like on such a craft. 'We have a lot of film in the exhibition, so you can see people actually onboard the ships and there are really quite dazzling installations that focus on the fashion as well as that really performative descent to dinner onboard an ocean liner, which was somewhere you both had to be and be seen.' Among the fashion items on display are the Christian Dior suit worn by Marlene Dietrich as she arrived in New York on board the Queen Elizabeth in 1950, and the Duke of Windsor's 1940s Goyard luggage.
The history of the ocean liner is also the story of British shipbuilding, both of which went into sharp decline in the 20th century's second half when air travel became the preferred mode of transport for people who wanted to reach their destinations more quickly. 'Ocean liners themselves and this show are certainly glamorous but we also want people to leave with the sense that they were hugely impressive feats of engineering,' states Meredith. 'These ships had transformed and shrunk the world, with people travelling huge distances in a matter of days. Plus, if you were a wealthy person travelling on a French liner such as the Normandie, you were standing, effectively, on a representative of France as it was full of the best French interior design. As well as enjoying the experience, it's about appreciating that these ships don't exist anymore: we don't travel in the same way now. But at the time, this was modern life in a way that people hadn't experienced before.'
But as Ocean Liners records, it's not all about romance and glamour, with the exhibition touching on the more tragic history of these huge vessels. Titanic is, of course, a byword for vastness and calamity, while the sinking of the Lusitania off the Irish coast by a German U-boat in 1915 changed the face of World War I with popular opinion turning against Germany and redrawing the rules on legitimate military targets. Ocean Liners will have some artefacts on show that were rescued from both boats.
'The Lusitania is such an important story in terms of the turn of historical events and how this terrible tragedy eventually led to America coming into the war,' notes Meredith. 'So, we have a Cartier tiara that belonged to the wife of a shipping magnate. The tiara is an expensive object which somehow made it off the ship in the luggage being carried by her maid. The Titanic fragment was actually the largest fragment that survived and that's going to be shown in the final section of the exhibition were we're trying to reflect on what ocean liners still mean to people. At the end of the Titanic movie, the panel that Kate Winslet is lying on was based on this rescued panel. People are still fascinated by the Titanic today, because it's glamorous and tragic all in one.'
Ocean Liners is a suitably ambitious and impressive affair which is a fitting show to launch the grand opening of V&A Dundee. It may have felt like a long time coming, but Meredith can talk for everyone at the museum that it will be well worth the wait. 'It's very exciting that it's getting closer now. I've been working on this project for four years down in the V&A in London and having just moved up to Dundee, it's really exciting to be here and almost time to open. It certainly feels that it's getting close now and we're all excited to install the objects for the permanent galleries and for the first exhibition and to be finally in this building.'
Ocean Liners: Style and Speed runs at V&A Dundee from Sat 15 Sep–Sun 24 Feb 2019.
V&A Dundee is part of the £1bn regeneration programme of Dundee Waterfront, and it's one of the largest and busiest art and design hubs in the country. Japanese architect Kengo Kuma won the competition in 2010, and construction began in March 2015.