French, London-based artist Camille Walala poses inside the newly created High Street shop in the Design Museum in west London. - AFP photos

Touching artwork is strictly forbidden in most museums, let alone buying it and taking it home. But the Design Museum in London wants visitors to do precisely that. It has transformed its gift shop to create what it describes as "the world's first artist-designed supermarket" as a way of getting around coronavirus lockdown rules. Under the government's plan to ease restrictions, museums in England have to remain shut until May 17 at the earliest, even as gyms, hairdressing salons and pubs have reopened. But the west London museum has avoided weeks of further closure by converting its gift shop into a store selling essential items.

The products-ranging from rice and coffee to the most modern of essentials, face masks-are wrapped in packaging designed by 10 emerging artists. Proceeds from the five-day exhibition, which runs from Wednesday to Sunday, with financial backing from gin company Bombay Sapphire, will go towards a fund for artists and designers. Images of empty shelves and shortages of toilet paper and pasta at supermarkets marked the start of the pandemic in the UK last March. But the Design Museum shop and its products are far from mundane: clean lines of brightly coloured jars and cans are neatly arranged on the shelves, with nothing out of place.

A gallery assistant fills a shopping trolley with products designed by emerging artists inside the newly created High Street shop.

What's essential?

Museum director Tim Marlow said the exhibition called into question the nature of what is judged to be essential in everyday life. So-called non-essential retail reopened in England on April 12. "Isn't creativity essential? We're in a shop that's actually a work of art. From the street you see this flattened pattern or canvas, but once you're inside the experience is completely different," he told AFP. "You can buy essential food items at competitive prices. It's about who profits, who funds, and exchange as much about culture. "There's a fun element to it, there's a questioning and critical element and a culturally serious aspect to it.

"We're bemused by the fact that non-essential retail, gyms and hairdressers can open and museums will have to wait until the 17th (of May), but it is as it is." The Design Museum lost 92 percent of its income due to forced closures but received a government grant of almost £3 million ($4.1 million, 3.4 million euros) last year to keep it afloat.

And Marlow believes the cultural sector has an important role to play if it adapts to the reality of the post-pandemic world. "We've done this in two months-that's quite quick and requires a lot of agility," he said. "I want to affirm the relevance of museums. We're not just about spectacle. We are about showcasing and researching solutions for the problems we face post-pandemic."

Joyful exhibition

Lead artist Camille Walala embodied the brightness of the reworked shop, sporting large blue earrings, colourful clothing and thick yellow, red and blue bangles. She said of the project: "Budgets get cut in the creative industry but creativity is everywhere. Creativity is essential and it (the exhibition) gives a platform to creative people to showcase their work.

"It is a nice platform, bringing artwork in everyday products. People will buy them and keep them as an affordable piece of art. It is a really nice way to display art. "People should come because it is exciting to get out of the house, see art and be inspired-it's a joyful exhibition." Her message seems to have been grasped by Peter Williamson, 64, who was peering through the windows to catch an early glimpse of the exhibition.

"I walk by every day and was intrigued when they were doing the fake shop. I think it's brilliant, the elements of the old supermarket being installed within a very modern display," he said. "I love the installation of the trolley stand. Peeking through the windows, I think it looks brilliant and exciting." - AFP