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Design Museum Beats Covid Lockdown With Unusual Strategy

With the UK’s third national lockdown forcing the countries museums and galleries to close their doors to visitors, one came up with a novel approach to get around the rules in a legal way. While some museums set up virtual tours for patrons online and others gave lectures about their collections with livestreams and podcasts, the Design Museum – located in Kensington, in West London – decided it still wanted to achieve in-person visits. To this end, it looked around at which public placess were still able to open their doors to the public and realised that supermarkets were one of the few places where people could go.

Even though non-essential retail was closed in the UK for much of the latter half of 2020 and the start of 2021, supermarkets were allowed to keep their doors open for grocery purchases. Given that the Design Museum’s shop was full of items that would normally be classed as non-essential, it decided to completely rebrand it as a supermarket, only one with a heavy accent on design. The Design Museum, which focuses on industrial, graphic, fashion, and architectural design was named as European Museum of the Year in 2018, so running a supermarket from its shop necessarily involved a degree of creative thought and innovation.

An Exhibition or a Shop?

The museum’s exhibition – simply called Supermarket – was a grocery store as well as operating as a design-led and collaboratively put together art installation. The idea was straightforward enough – items for sale in Supermarket could be bought by anyone who wanted to purchase them just like any shop. The Design Museum partnered with Bombay Sapphire Gin and the renowned designer, Camille Walala, for the concept to come to fruition. Walala is known for her large-scale work which often reimagines public spaces in colourful ways.

Initially, the project involved putting together a team of up-and-coming illustrators, design artists and animators to dream up new packaging. Of course, all of the products that went on sale in Supermarket had to be essentials – the sort of thing that shops were allowed to open for business for – but that did not mean that they needed to be run-of-the-mill products. Instead, the team of ten designers each made use of their unique styles and imagery to come up with something completely new that could not be found anywhere else.

Public museums in much of the UK, including London, remained closed until 17th May and many have started to reopen since then. However, during the Covid-19 public healthcare emergency, the pop-up grocery shop was able to welcome members of the public. It did so in April for a period of just five days, offering a unique chance to enjoy contemporary design in a museum-like context without breaking the law.

In fact, the Design Museum was making a wider point about creativity during lockdown than simply being inventive with interpreting the way the law was written. The organisers wanted to send a message that creativity could still bloom even under such stringent circumstances. It organised an online debate and prompted plenty of discussions around design, museums and public institutions with its hashtag, #CreativityIsEssential.

Design Ideas

One of the illustrators who took part in the Supermarket project, Charlotte Edey, said the Design museum has contacted her before the UK government announced its plans for relaxing social distancing rules in England. According to her, the brief was to show how it was possible to make creativity accessible to people even during a time of many different social restrictions. The idea was also to ask questions about what people decide is essential for them and what is not.

“I found the idea intriguing,” Edey said. She added that, at the time, she felt as though the proposed opening time for the pop-up exhibition had perfectly echoed the sentiment in the brief, especially on what she called the value of creativity.

Joey Yu, an illustrator, animator and curator who was also involved in Supermarket, said that she thought the project had something important to add in the wider conversation about what had been going on over the entire lockdown period. “I think it is important for people to keep being inspired,” she said. Yu went on to say that music, theatre and art are things you need to see and feel in real life to be experienced properly. “It’s just not the same on a computer screen,” she said. “Supermarket is definitely [part of a]… debate that needs to be had.”

The exhibition offered visitors clean lines of brightly arranged jars and cans that had been neatly placed on shelves such that nothing was out of place. Yu’s work, for example, featured on two products, a 500-gram packet of Seggiano wild rice and a jar of organic Sicilian tomato passata. Other groceries that were presented in new design styles included a tin of kidney beans which was reimagined by Kentaro Okawara. The designer Katherine Plumb came up with a new way of presenting tea while washing up liquid was taken on by the illustrator and artist Jesse Warby. Given that it had been involved from the start, a limited-edition Bombay Sapphire gin bottle was also sold on the shelves of Supermarket, too. This one got the design treatment from Ruff Mercy, an artist and animation director.

Creative Questioning

The Design Museum said that all the funds raised from the sale of its products would be donated to the Emerging Designer Access Fund. This fund offers newly emerging talent free access to the Design Museum’s talks and events as well as its exhibitions. Tim Marlow, the museum’s director, said that although there was a fun element to the exhibition-shop, in the end, it was its questioning and critical elements that meant it had a more serious cultural impact.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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