The Shekou Industrial Zone in Shenzhen, south China, is equal parts port and construction site. Along the coastal horizon, cranes appear to battle like enormous monsters. In spring 2017, this industrial zone is due to become home to a high-profile design complex, recently rebranded as Design Society. The project is being created in partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London.
Designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, the Shekou Design Museum is wholly funded by the state-owned China Merchants Group. In 2013, it recruited the V&A to open a dedicated gallery inside the planned 71,000 sq. m building. Loans will range from a 17th-century pocket watch to a dress by Christian Dior. The V&A will present two major touring exhibitions in 2017 and 2018 at the venue. Chinese institutions frequently import one-off exhibitions from international venues, but this marks the first time that a foreign museum has been fully integrated in the development of a Chinese institution.
Under the terms of the five-year partnership, the V&A will organise ongoing presentations of 20th- and 21st-century international design from its collection in the V&A Gallery. This is led by Luisa Mengoni, the London museum’s senior curator of Asian arts, who began a three-year stint in Shenzhen in October 2014. The V&A will also organise two touring exhibitions, one in 2017 and another in 2018, and will help to train senior staff. The V&A receives a fee as part of the deal, but declined to specify a figure.
“This will not be a branch of the V&A, nor is it a joint venture,” says Tim Reeve, the museum’s deputy director. The arrangement “allows the V&A to contribute to a new design initiative in China, and to raise the profile of our ideas and collections there… without the major and expensive long-term commitment needed to set up a permanent outpost”. The contract can be extended if both sides agree.
The Shekou museum seeks to establish Shenzhen as more than a “factory of the world”, says Ole Bouman, the institution’s director. He hopes that its programme will shed light on the “ongoing transformations in Chinese society and the role design has in it”.
China Merchants Group invests heavily in property, and the design museum is part of an ambitious project to give Shekou a makeover. The Hong Kong-based conglomerate created the area by blowing up its hills to level the site and provide fill for the harbour. Even if China’s property market declines with the economy, Bouman says that the museum should remain on track. “The project is not funded by casino money [from property speculation], but based on a multi-year commitment,” he says.