A recent report in the South China Morning Post highlights the vast number of white elephant museum projects across China. The precursor to this is something that myself and other professionals have come across repeatedly over the last twenty years.
The number of times we have either been asked to bid on tenders that were clearly vanity projects of local officials or simply non-starters in terms of potential visitor attractions are numerous. And of course once you’ve landed a job that’s when the real problems begin.
The honest would try to reason with the client and steer the project in the direction of good practice, while the cynical would simply milk the project for all the public money it was worth. Sometimes it was a combination of both, with the designer fighting the good fight for a while before being ground down and getting on with delivering whatever was asked for just to get paid. It appears that many of those projects have now come to fruition and prove the advice often given by the consultant in the first place: without a collection, a focus and/or an audience the museum is a zombie institution.
It should be said that this is not just a problem in China (it’s just that as with most things in China it’s bigger). I remember during the frenzy of the millennium projects in the UK we were invited to bid on a high-tech art museum (that shall remain nameless). Having spoken to a few locals before the meeting (in the pub!) it was clear that the area did not even have a multiplex cinema. We said as much in the meeting, suggesting that perhaps public money might be better spent on that. Not surprisingly we didn’t get the job. Six months after opening, and after millions of pounds spent, the project closed down.