Matthew Jones is a senior consultant for Imagemakers Design & Consultancy, a UK-based design agency specialising in heritage visitor attraction and museum planning and design. Here he explains his China business journey
It all began with an archaeological adventure
Our Chinese adventure began back in 2008/9 when an unlikely opportunity was presented to us. At that time, as the financial crash started to bite, we were already considering the merits of working in China when the British Council alerted us to an opportunity in Xi’an – the historic home city of the famous Terracotta Warriors – where another UK company, Team Tourism, was developing a tourism strategy. From this, we agreed to design an archaeology discovery centre, albeit with a degree of trepidation.
With the decision made, Imagemakers’ CEO, Jane Sillifant, packed and left for five-months of ‘full cultural immersion’ into Chinese working methods, as she experienced, first-hand, how a museum project is delivered. After a great deal of stress and some valuable lessons learned, a handful of new friends were made, promises of more work were given and the Daming Palace Archaeology Discovery Centre was complete – the first dedicated archaeological visitor attraction in China.
Slow and steady does it
Since this initial foray into China, we’ve adopted a cautious approach to growing our activities. This has seen us make regular visits to clients, attend topical (and sometimes impromptu) talks, workshops and conferences across China and inevitably getting into the brave new world of WeChat. Absolutely everything happens on this social media platform.
When working in China you quickly learn the importance of guanxi. Guanxi involves taking time to cultivate relationships, and it is by far the most important step if you’re trying to establish a working presence in China. It means showing your face – regularly. It also demands having someone ‘in the know’ to help guide you through the minefield of potential business blunders and cultural catastrophes. After nearly 10 years, we’ve obviously been doing something right as we’ve branched out from our one initial partner and project and now work with a range of different design agencies, real estate development companies, cultural and heritage tourism destination management companies as well as directly with attractions and museums.
We employ a small ‘on-the-ground’ China staff and we’re also able to sustain a core UK-based design team whose work is pretty much exclusively planning and conceptual design for Chinese museums and attractions.
To date we’ve delivered more than 50 projects across 20 provinces. These range from initial concept planning and design schemes to overseeing the implementation and quality control of exhibition fabrication. We have worked at a variety of scales and across widely varying sites and subjects – large natural history and science museums, regional cultural tourism destination sites, scenic and protected areas and city wetland visitor centres, to give just a few examples.
Becoming an ‘umbrella species’
Wherever we go we encounter a genuine appetite to collaborate with Western and, in particular, UK creatives and experts. We’re routinely asked “Do you know anyone who can help us with this or that city master planning scheme, architectural brief or heritage tourism project?” to which our answer is “yes, sure”. To borrow a term from ecology – we’ve become something of an ‘umbrella species’ in China.
The profound growth of China’s economy in recent decades is well documented. Less well known (outside the museum / cultural sector bubble anyway) is the dramatic ‘museum boom’ and growth in China’s cultural and tourism industry and the opportunities this brings for the UK.
We are proud to fly the flag for UK creativity and expertise and are increasingly presented opportunities to collaborate with UK partners across a diverse range of creative disciplines in the heritage and tourism sector to provide the services our Chinese clients need.
Moving forward in troubling times
In these tricky times, and in spite of the obvious current restrictions on travel, we remain optimistic about prospects for working in China moving forward.
There remains a real hunger for the UK brand of creative thinking and there’s continuing heavy investment in cultural projects right across China, and continued collaboration is key.