Adventures in space: Britain helps Shenzhen create design museum as showcase of its transformation

Partnership between London's Victoria and Albert Museum and a state-owned Chinese logistics company to open a design museum in Shenzhen is another sign of the special economic zone's cultural clout

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2015, 12:22am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2015, 3:50pm

It is the start of a long weekend celebrating the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender in the second world war. A group of friends, including a Tsinghua University professor, a founder of one of China's leading architectural practices, and the owner of a well-known local music venue, are chewing the fat in designer Huang Yang's office in Shenzhen.

The conversation flows comfortably around a coffee table laden with fruit and cups of tea, moving from town planning disasters to the making of digital replicas of the Mogao Grottoes. Luisa Mengoni, the lone Westerner in the room, sits relaxed, occasionally interjecting in perfect Putonghua.

The Italian expert on Chinese art has become firmly embedded in the city's cultural circle since arriving about a year ago as head of the future V&A Gallery at Shekou, western Shenzhen - a partnership with London's celebrated Victoria and Albert Museum.

"It is fascinating to map," she says of the vibrant design industry that has developed in China's youngest megacity. "There's been a graphic design industry here since the 1990s to serve local factories, but individuals like Huang represent the new generation and they are doing such interesting things."

Mengoni, who studied at Wuhan University in the early 1990s, is here to help lay the groundwork for a new museum belonging to the China Merchants Group. Scheduled to open at the start of 2017, the museum has been designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Fumihiko Maki and has a working title of Shekou Design Museum. The low-rise, light-filled structure near the Sea World metro station will house three elements dedicated to promoting the cross-cultural value of design: the V&A Gallery, a branch of Ma Weidu's Guanfu private museum and the museum's own collection.

Ever since the 163-year-old British art and design museum agreed in June 2014 to become China Merchant Group's consultant and to set up its first overseas offshoot within the Shenzhen museum, people have been questioning how it would find common ground with a state-owned Chinese logistics, trading and property development conglomerate based in Hong Kong.

From the the museum's point of view, the Shekou gallery allows it to showcase selections of its London collection in China as well as new acquisitions made specifically for China.

The museum project also raises its profile in the country and should attract more visitors to the London museum, says Mengoni. More importantly, it is a base for building a long-term relationship with China's design circle, allowing for more collaboration in research and exhibitions.

Initially, however, the museum was afraid that the China Merchant project would be like so many shallow cultural schemes concocted by developers to raise the tone, and value, of real estate.

"The V&A receives a lot of museum proposals from around the world and many are doing it mainly to make money. But after two years of studying China Merchant's idea, we decided that it had a different approach from other developers. It is a company with a strong sense of its own history and always committed to the public good," says Mengoni.

Founded in 1872, China Merchant Group is one of five state-controlled conglomerates headquartered in Hong Kong. It was the first company to respond when Deng Xiaoping fired the starter gun for China's opening up: in 1979, it built the nation's first export-oriented industrial zone in Shekou, a year before the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone came into being.

Today, the company is converting that industrial area into a modern business centre that is now part of the new Guangdong Free Trade Zone, and having a world-class design museum is essentially a grand expression of a desire for the area to attract a new generation of businesses that are anything but low-margin sweatshops.

In a way, the Shekou museum has as much to say about modern China as the military parade that took place in Beijing a few weeks ago. Growth from traditional, labour-intensive modes of production is slowing down in China and the government envisages a brains-driven, rather than brawn-driven, economy.

Ole Bouman, founding director of the Shekou Design Museum, says design will necessarily play a major role as China makes the transition from being a factory for the world to a "huge brain trust". The military parade is a show of one kind of power, he says, while the Shekou museum can be seen as an effect of the government's long-term social and economic ambitions.

Bouman, former director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute and curator of the 2013 Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture, was appointed eight months ago to steer the museum's discourse and to make sure that there is a coherent story told by the three different elements of the museum.

"Guangfu will feature decorative arts and applied arts up to the late Qing dynasty. The V&A Gallery will focus on 20th and 21st century international designs. The other halls will envision future scenarios," he says.

The narrative of how design can create value is very much in line with the messages from central government about upgrading the Chinese economy. Bouman says he has no qualms about playing a role in what may potentially be seen as propaganda.

"I prefer to think historically. It is a way to grasp the past and the future. In the West, there is an allergy to defining long-term options because they are easily reduced to ideology," he says. "In China, there is no such allergy to ideology or defining long-term options."

The practical role that culture can play in society also fits in with his personal beliefs.

"It is high time to overcome the postmodernist thinking in the 1990s and 2000s where there were isolated discourses in design and no interest in its purpose. The Shekou museum is a big appeal to the design discipline to contribute," he says.

There are still many in Beijing and Shanghai who see Shenzhen as a cultural desert. But at a tender age of 35, Shenzhen has become a great showcase for how China can become a market leader in higher-value-added products and services, as it is home to homegrown technology giants Tencent, BYD and Huawei, as well as a growing list of successful start-ups such as the world's largest drone maker, DJI.

Mengoni says the V&A hopes to play a role in inspiring change and design among the new generation of companies that will make Shekou their home.

For decades, Chinese people only wanted to survive. Now, they can consider alternatives and to begin to question the mainstream
Jason Ren, co-founder of Shenzhen independent boutique and magazine Little Things

"We hope that this museum will have a very different approach from established museums in China generally. In the UK, museums have become interactive, a platform for new ways of telling stories, and to spark debates in community. This is different from the traditional museum which sees its main roles as preservation and education," she says.

There may be some overlap with the design collection of Hong Kong's M+ museum of visual culture in the future West Kowloon Cultural District, but she says there is enough happening in the Pearl River Delta for multiple design museums.

In addition to her museum work, Mengoni is keeping detailed field notes about the designers and entrepreneurs who form the vanguard of Greater China's creative industries. This, she shares publicly on her blog, while her growing contact list will allow for more collaboration between the V&A and the region's designers for years to come, she says.

It is perhaps a testament to modern China's newfound confidence that there is no guardedness regarding the mapping of its design industry, the collection of stories and indeed the museum-building, by a Western cultural organisation - activities that could so easily trigger alarm bells about a colonial imposition of values and categorisation.

"Everything happens so quickly here. You don't notice the changes yourself and it's good that someone is archiving it systematically," says Victor Zhu, the Shenzhen-based founder of independent fashion brand VMajor; his three-year-old company is making more than 10,000 pieces of clothing a year and has retail sales of 10 million yuan (HK$12 million).

Having a design museum that is curated by international experts will be a great addition to the local cultural landscape, he says. "In the cultural sphere there's a tendency to be formulaic and things are done for the sake of doing them. It's good to have people like the V&A to come here and do things thoughtfully and set up standards of aesthetics," he says.

Jason Ren, co-founder of an independent boutique called Little Things and a magazine of the same name, says he hopes the museum will encourage local people to consider new modes of living.

"For decades, Chinese people only wanted to survive. Now, they can consider alternatives and to begin to question the mainstream," he says. The new museum can help bring the best ideas and beautiful objects to China, just as his shop and his magazine aim to do, he adds.

Bouman resists the idea of becoming an arbiter of taste. Shenzhen is a place with no answers yet, he says. "This is still a new city. It's more existential than Beijing and Shanghai and asking questions is second nature here. It is not a moment of judgment yet. In my role, as a moderator, I have to suspend my judgment."

And in doing so, he is allowing the city to develop its full potential for emancipation, he adds.