Riding the Tiger to China

Riding the Tiger to China

Posted by: Imagemakers Design & Consulting Ltd

Wuhan Natural History Museum

The Chinese expression “騎虎難下” (qí hǔ nán xià), which translates as “riding a tiger and it being hard to get off,” has come to mean facing a dilemma or being stuck in a difficult position with no way out but to see it through to the end. A similar phrase in English is “to have a tiger by its tail”. These phrases provide an apt description of the experience of Imagemakers Design & Consultancy Ltd. since deciding to work in China.

Having established a solid reputation in the UK since the 1980s as an interpretive planning and design company, Imagemakers were handed a golden opportunity in 2009 to develop the business in a way that they could not have foreseen at the time.

TEAM Tourism and the Terracotta Army 

In 2009, Imagemakers' founder and managing director, Jane Sillifant, was approached by TEAM Tourism, who were working on a tourism strategy relating to the Daming Palace site in Xi’an, China (home city of the famous Terracotta Army). They were asking for help to design a new archaeology discovery centre – which would be the first of its kind in China.

Although highly experienced in this field, Imagemakers had never considered working outside the UK, least of all in China. However, the call came at a time when Ms. Sillifant and her management team were reviewing the company's strategic direction and after much discussion, they agreed to ride the tiger to China.

Fully committed to the company's success, Ms. Sillifant travelled to Xi'an to live and work for the duration of the project. Under her direction, Imagemakers took the project from concept design to final delivery, partnering with an experienced, China-based exhibition fabrication firm to ensure the best possible outcome.

Five months later Ms. Sillifant returned to the UK with a vision for the company to build on their recent experience and attempt to grow an arm of the business within China.

Taking a step back to move forward

There is a Chinese proverb that advises us that it is sometimes better to step back from fixating too much on our goals, and revise our approaches to reach our most immediate objective.

In other words, as eager as they were to work in China again, Imagemakers' brief business encounter there had taught them to recognise the need to tread lightly and slowly. For a country steeped in tradition, and which places great importance on reputation and relationship, any vigorous attempts to 'break the market' would have been futile.

Instead, Imagemakers' started its development into China with a quiet confidence. Early projects, albeit small and low key, enabled them to learn more about the culture as well as business and social etiquette. The projects also helped them make connections and, slowly but surely, Imagemakers’ reputation grew and they started making a name for themselves.

Friends and partners are key

The traditional museum model in China can be characterised by the phrase ‘knowledge is king’. Many museums are concerned less about engaging visitors and more about communicating factual and technical data. As a result, they are often passive, lacking meaningful interaction and seeming rather more like formal educational establishments.

By gradually expanding the scope of their work, through partnering with various Chinese design and fabrication companies, meetings with government officials and museum clients and through talking at various workshops and conferences, Imagemakers has gone about promoting western approaches to interpretive planning and design and is starting to see a real openness to new ways of working.

This openness has been helped more recently by China’s determination that it must transform its economic model from ‘made in China’ to ‘created in China’, a change in policy which places greater emphasis on creativity and innovation and which also brings opportunity to transform how people engage with museums and other cultural organisations.

Wuhan Natural History Museum

One of Imagemakers' latest projects in China is the realisation of an interpretive vision for the Wuhan Natural History Museum. The museum, which is due to open late 2018, challenges the norms of the many Chinese natural history museums.

Conventional static dioramas and a strongly didactic approach to visitor learning will instead be transformed into a series of engaging, immersive and interactive story-telling spaces, which take visitors on exciting journeys along some of the world’s greatest rivers.

The museum will also carry strong messaging to raise awareness, concern and action for tackling the issues of global climate change.

It is the opportunity to create experiences such as these, on such fantastic scales and with a genuine possibility of influencing hearts and minds that provides a powerful motivation for Imagemakers to continue working in, what can at times prove to be, a challenging and demanding market.