"For us, Asia is in the centre"
- Aric Chen

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Aric Chen

News: Aric Chen, curator of design and architecture for the new M+ museum for visual culture in Hong Kong, says the museum will take an unprecedented stance in "placing Asia at the centre" of design history, rather than on the periphery as western curators have done (+ audio + transcript).

Above: listen to Aric Chen on his curatorial approach to Asian design at the new M+ museum in Hong Kong

"There are great museums that have great objects and items in their collections relating to Asia but that's usually with Asia being sort of 'other', on the periphery," Chen told Dezeen. "For us, Asia is in the centre and I think that's a very different perspective than any other museum has taken."

He was speaking to Dezeen after a talk at the Asia Society in Hong Kong on Monday, presenting the findings of a two-day workshop with leading international curators and scholars to explore the implications of historicising, collecting and curating Asian design. "We don't have many precedents for design and architecture collections - certainly of any real size or scale - in Asia," Chen explained, adding that M+ will strive to set its own approach apart from the curatorial models of long-established collections in Europe and the US.

"We will not be duplicating the efforts of other museums who are doing a very good job of what they're doing: MoMA, the Design Museum London and the V&A all have great collections of architecture and design, and there's absolutely no need for us to clone them," he said. "That doesn't mean that established models don't have things we can learn from but our main priority is really to define who we are on our terms. I see our Hong Kong perspective as being something very organic, natural, and hence perhaps more authentic."

M+ is set to open in 2017 as part of the new West Kowloon Cultural District, a 40 hectare site that will be masterplanned by Foster + Partners. Chen took up his post as curator of design and architecture a month ago, having previously been creative director of Beijing Design Week where he told Dezeen that "China needs to slow down" in our previous interview in October.

The Asian Design: Histories, Collecting, Curating talk was part of a series of workshops called M+ Matters, a series of public talks and workshops to shape the curatorial stance of the museum as its collection evolves ahead of opening. Speakers included Dr Christine Guth of the Royal College of Art/V&A museum in London on the baggage that comes with the term "Asian design", and MoMA curator Paola Antonelli on new modes of design. All speakers' papers will be available from the M+ Matters website soon.

Dezeen is in Hong Kong this week to report on Business of Design Week and you can see all our recent stories about Chinese design here.

Read the full transcript of the interview with Aric Chen below:


Rose Etherington: Can you explain what you've been trying to do [in Hong Kong] over the last couple of days?

Aric Chen: We have a very broad mandate, but a very complicated one in a wonderful way. We are trying to build a collection, and perhaps even a discourse, about design and architecture from both the 20th century to a contemporary standpoint, from our perspective here in in Hong Kong, China and Asia. Plus, as a museum for visual culture, including art, design, architecture and moving image, from an Asian perspective. But it's not a museum of Asian visual culture.

We want to intelligently build this idea of design and architecture from our perspective here, but to do it in a way that avoids a lot of pitfalls that can easily come with that. We are not only questioning our identity, but the very notion of an identity. What does it mean to have an Asian perspective? What do design and architecture actually do? What are the parameters nowadays? What are the local global sort of issues that we have to deal with? This workshop for the past couple of days has really been a starting point. We've invited fantastic speakers from all over, all coming from a different angle themselves, different backgrounds, really to illustrate the complexity of the task at hand, but also of course to give us various starting points.

Rose Etherington: I would normally ask you what conclusions you have drawn over the last couple of days, but I think it's maybe more relevant to ask what are the biggest problems that you've uncovered. What are the biggest questions?

Aric Chen: I think, well first of all, as for your first question, I think in general, we all have to accept that the only conclusion is that there is no conclusion. As I was saying earlier, all museums, or all good museums at least, are constantly evolving. They are constantly framing, reframing themselves with the questions they ask, and adjusting, revising, and reappraising their own standpoint. And I think we'll be doing that too. But in terms of the biggest problems, I think the biggest is just really the immensity of the task at hand, but there's a really easy solution, which is to take it one step at a time.

Rose Etherington: Do you have a kind list formed in your mind of what M+ must not do? What it must not be?

Aric Chen: What is first and foremost for me is that we will not be duplicating the efforts of other museums. So we are doing a very good job of what they're doing, you know. Collection-wise, MOMA has a great collection, Design Museum London, VMA, they all have great collections of design and architecture and there is absolutely no need for us to clone them. That's the biggest "don't", to sort of fall into this trap of following others, or following established models too closely. Now that doesn't mean that established models don't have things we can learn from, but our main priority is really to define who we are on our terms.

Rose Etherington: And is that where being based on a Hong Kong perspective comes in?

Aric Chen: Yes, and I'll be frank, I don't think we need to be getting into these sort of circular arguments of identity politics. I see our Hong Kong perspective as being something very organic, organic-natural, and hence perhaps more authentic. We are here, we are of this place, we are from this place and that will naturally show.

Rose Etherington: Do you think there is a lack of that kind of approach in museum curating at the moment?

Aric Chen: Well, it's difficult to say because there aren't, I mean, I just said that we don't want to follow established models or precedence, but in some ways we don't have a choice because we don't have many precedents for design architecture museum collection, certainly of any real size or scale in Asia. So again, I think this Asian perspective will come naturally, we don't want it to be a forced thing.

I think there are great museums that have great objects and other items in their collections from, of and relating to Asia, and again that's usually with Asia as being the sort of other on the periphery. For us, Asia is in the centre. And I think that's a very different perspective than any other museum has taken, I hope.