Chen Li, Nanjing Museun, China: What is a good exhibition?

Chen Li, International Loans Coordinator, Nanjing Museun, China

What is good exhibition?

In the past month, we have been bombarded with exhibitions. It made me think what is “good” exhibition. For museums and galleries that have tons of masterpieces, even if the artworks and artifacts were just put there, people would still rush to them. It is kind of easier for these museums to present a good or, more accurately, popular exhibitions. Not least some of them are trying hard to turn good into perfect. However, the exhibition that sticks in my mind comes from a museum which cannot boast of many famous objects. That is the permanent exhibition entitled Designer Maker User in the Design Museum.

At first, I thought design related to luxuries and fashion, and was far away from my life. When I entered the gallery, the first object I saw was the London subway map. Until then, I had not known the map was designed by a designer instead of being drawn by some government officials or engineers according to real routes. So, from the spoon to the city, everything surrounds us is designed. But the exhibition does not stop at showing those fabulous designs. It keeps asking questions. For example, what is “good” design? If there is good design, what design is called “bad”? If you think the design of a surgical blade is good, how about the design of a gun? These questions enable visitors to understand design from different angles. The curator even uses the design of modern kitchen to provoke thoughts about women’s liberation.


Can you find anything you are familiar with in the crowd-sourced wall?

From the perspective of maker, the curator keeps digging meaning hidden in products. We as user of products and services, choose specific products to show our different style. But are we really free when we make those choices? Are we influenced by fashion and who control fashion? How are the possessions surrounding us define our identity? Those questions are really to the point and make the whole exhibition rich and deep.

The last part is to see design from the maker’s point of view. As we know, in the last decades, China is the factory of the world and seems it is reaping great profits. But if you pay a visit to the factories, if you know more about the robotic work, and if you look at the grey sky and greenish rivers, you may wish China would not develop so quickly, especially when you are a Chinese. There is one photograph in the gallery showing a group of Chinese workers wearing yellow suits, just like ants. No matter how brilliant a design of a product is, the work of mass producing it does not look brilliant at all.


A typical factory in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.

So, what makes the exhibition good? First, you learn something. For me, after the exhibition, I turn from an unconscious user to an informed user. Second, all graphics and labels are written in simple but vivid language. Third, all video clips and graphics blend with instead of shadowing the content.