Hybridisation and branding in Chinese museums: the case of SWCAC, Shenzhen

  • Fong Yi KHOO

Student thesis: PhD Thesis


In China, museums are increasingly adopting “brand collaborations”—a strategic development strategy that uses various combinations of cultural and commercial partnerships in order to build organisational capacity, gain market visibility and entice consumers. As a result, these collaborations encourage a rise in establishing long-term partnerships between international brands and local partners: from joint exhibitions, merchandising opportunities and establishing outposts. Encouraged by China’s Museum Boom, the ‘museum-mall’ building type is also a result of brand collaborations, typically involving hybridised building programmes and partnership with world-renowned cultural institutions. Considering the role of the state in the development of museums in mainland China, museum hybridisation and the museum-mall type are not merely new marketing ploys, but they reflect the need to accommodate broader economic and political shifts, alongside a much-needed upskilling of the Chinese museum profession. However, despite their growing prevalence and popularity, little research has been done to examine them beyond the brand image and spectacle.

This study aims to address this lack of research on hybridised museums. The first objective is to better understand recent museum development in mainland China whereby hybridisation is changing the way museums are designed, marketed, and experienced. A detailed case study of the Sea World Cultural and Arts Center (SWCAC) at Sea World, Shenzhen—a partnership between Design Society and the UK’s V&A Museum—offers an alternative window to view broader shifts in China. According to Design Society, this outpost model is marketed as a “totally new way of working in China”. This museum-mall type houses the V&A outpost alongside hybrid building programmes: open-plan galleries, multipurpose halls, restaurants, theatres, artist workshops, and curated shops. Superficially, it is designed as a landmark building that thrives off the brand value of the partnership, but its hybrid cultural-commercial building programmes reveal a complex relationship between the state and non-state, the cultural and commercial, and the local and global interests.

Through analysing the SWCAC, the second objective of this study centres around branding and hybridisation as theoretical tools to provide new insights into the new roles and functions of hybrid museums in mainland China. This study proposes a new theoretical framework that expands upon the existing concept of “brandscaping” but with added local context. Whilst the brandscape lacked the Chinese context, museum studies in China lacked the critical view of branding and placemaking in their current framework. Branding (notably brandscaping) will be used as the overarching lens that generalises the phenomenon of hybridised museums in China. Meanwhile, hybridisation will be used to examine the invisible and visible drivers that contribute to SWCAC’s development, namely: (i) transnational actors, (ii) cultural-commercial building functions, and (iii) place- and city branding. Each theme is concerned with the three different types of hybridisation that are unique to the Chinese context.

Findings show how cultural venues have been hybridising since China’s Open Door Policy, making museum partnerships and brand collaborations less novel than they seem. However, the hybridising factors show how these transnational activities visibly impacted the way museums in China are designed for and redefined by local consumption, making it important to the diversity of ‘the culture of museum’. Overall, findings based on the SWCAC present a new kind of cultural venue that blurs institutional structures (between the state and private) and yet, retain powerful localising factors. Thus, a new theoretical model is created from multiple and formerly exclusive theories based on the shape of museum development in the Chinese context. Because of the shared localising factors, this study is not limited to museum development in China, but can also other cultural venues, shopping malls, and megaprojects. Future studies ought to reconsider viewing future transnational cultural projects as a process that is beyond its superficial façade and brand value, but also look at the localising forces that shape design and new ideologies.
Date of AwardMar 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Nottingham
SupervisorYat Ming Loo (Supervisor) & Jonathan Hale (Supervisor)


  • Hybridisation
  • Branding
  • Chinese museums

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