Opening night at the China Design Now exhibition brought a diverse crowd to the Portland Art Museum. Bike messengers, baristas, architects, graphic designers, students, and more converged on the nation's seventh oldest museum to learn more about China's next great dynasty—design. As I mentioned in my previous post, the Portland Art Museum brought China Design Now from the V&A in London via Cincinnati to attract new audiences and elevate the cultural dialogue in Portland to a global discourse. It's the first international traveling show to hit Portland in over half a decade and it reflects executive director Brian Ferriso's vision to thrive in the new economy by redefining the museum experience.
The exhibition charts China's amazing 20-year transformation from manufacturer to creator. The massive amount of content makes the scope and significance of China's emerging design culture tangible, if overwhelming. The museum needed an over-arching story that would make the exhibition more accessible and meaningful. To create more urgency and immediacy, it decided to put China's current cultural transformation in the context of China's rich dynasty heritage. By introducing China's most recent dynasty— the Design Dynasty—the museum was able to immediately communicate the scale and importance of the show and of this particular moment in time to the Chinese people and to the world.
The use of metaphor has helped clarify the story throughout the exhibition. China Design Now was initially organized around three cities (Shenzen, Shanghai, Beijing) and their respective design disciplines (graphics, fashion, and architecture). To help people understand this relationship, Elizabeth Blades, creative director at Ziba Design, used these metaphors to design the exhibition space. Shenzen, the birth of Chinese graphic design, is represented as a design studio; Shanghai, the fashion capitol of China, is a fashion runway; and Beijing, the capital city, is the central pavilion.
Throughout the journey, Blades explores five design principles Ziba identified through 10 years of research in China and in studying the pieces of the exhibition: the Power of Many, Neo-traditions, Contrasts, DIY, and Mashups. Visitors experience these principles in the work and throughout the exhibition design. Outside the museum, 200 red lanterns are suspended with cables 30 feet above the contemporary sculpture garden; in the entrance, China Design Now is spelled in simplified Mandarin with fluorescent lighting tubes; in the interior courtyard, everyday statistics make the scale and influence of China more tangible; and in the entry hall, a field of faces introduces the leaders of the new Dynasty—the Chinese designers whose work is showcased in the exhibition.
The museum's use of story and metaphor has helped make the work more meaningful. Opening night was filled with wonder and excitement. Oregonian art critic D.K. Row noted that the Portland version of the exhibition made this complex subject more understandable. For the museum, opening night is just the start. To truly transform the museum experience, the Portland Art Museum is extending the exhibition beyond the museum and engaging the entire city in a conversation about China's next great dynasty. In my next post, I'll take a look how the museum is leveraging social networking principles to remain relevant.
Steve McCallion is a skilled innovation architect and brand strategist. His groundbreaking work includes redefining Umpqua Bank's role as an anchor for community prosperity, creating Sirius Satellite Radio's award-winning experience for the "iPod fatigued," and working with real estate developers Gerding Edlen to create more meaningful neighborhoods. Other clients include Xerox, Black & Decker, Whirlpool, FedEx, McDonald's, Coleman, Kenwood, and Compaq. Steve's primary charge is to foster Ziba's consumer experience practice. He founded the company's award-winning Design Research and Planning practice group, which has developed proprietary research and design planning methodologies.