Shanghai’d, or the USA Pavilion as a corporate theme park

Below is an excerpt from a must-read post at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy by Cynthia Schneider and Hailey Woldt on America’s “contribution” to the World Expo now underway in China.

Let’s begin with the positive: the United States is present at the World Expo in Shanghai. The Secretary of State deserves praise for making this possible, by launching an eleventh hour fundraising drive, after the previous administration had done virtually nothing (besides rejecting a proposal that included Frank Gehry as architect). The Chinese cared enough about the U.S. presence to have contributed both public and private funds to guarantee that the U.S. showed up for Expo Shanghai 2010.

In this age of globalization and social networking, a World Expo might seem a quaint throwback to a bygone era. But for many countries, including, notably, China, it offers a global platform to present strengths and salient characteristics to the world. For example, Japan, known for its technology, powers its “green” pavilion partly from the footsteps of visitors who are treated to violin-playing robots, a single-person prototype car by Toyota, as well as a historical exhibition on Japan’s envoys to China. In its pavilion, Indonesia highlights cultural diversity; the United Arab Emirates emphasizes sustainability, a key focus of the country, with a recyclable dune shaped pavilion. Almost without exception the pavilions dazzle with innovative architecture, and with unusual shapes, colors, and lighting, as in the case of the United Kingdom’s pavilion— a futuristic display of 60,000 transparent fiberglass rods with different seeds enclosed at the ends, designed by British artist Thomas Heatherwick.

…[T]he student ambassador Dan Redford also observes that the USA Pavilion lacks anything about “our history, our education system, or our role in global affairs… American democracy, or elements of our past and present that have come to define us as Americans.”

…The main event appears to be a “4-D” film [set in a location] not recognizable as America. But no matter, because the film really is all about the special effects–shaking seats, real mist, — “a sense of immersion for our visitors,” according to the Pavilion’s website. If this sounds eerily like Disney World, you are right. One of the two people responsible for the design and content of the Pavilion is Nick Winslow, a special effects professional and theme park advisor (the other was Ellen Eliasoph, a partner in the Beijing branch of a leading American law firm).

Others have delved into the murky background of how these two private citizens with little relevant background or expertise were given free rein to determine the design and content of the Pavilion. We have a question that has not been asked to date: why did the State Department not apply the tried and true approach to corporate sponsorship that museums and performing arts companies have used for years, namely that the fundraisers fundraise, the corporate sponsors sponsor, and the experts execute? …

“A supply storage shed,” “a temporary NASA administrative building,” a “combination Bose Sound System/Air Purifier,” are some of the choice descriptions of the USA Pavilion, designed by Canadian architect Clive Grout. Canadian architect? Were there no architects in the U.S. up to the task? The only explanation we could find is that Grout is a “long-time associate of Winslow.”

Similarly, how could the U.S., arguably the global leader in film, be represented by a “4-D” extravaganza that would be at home at a theme park? …

The Pavilion in Shanghai is just the most visible example of the outsourcing of America’s outreach to the world. … If the U.S. does not take the power of cultural diplomacy and “soft power” seriously enough to invest time and money, there is one superpower that does: China.

Read the whole article at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy’s website.

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