Sainsbury’s Pop-Up Museum

Pop-up museums... just an interactive advert?

The bright orange lettering proudly adorning at least one supermarket in most British towns has made ‘Sainsbury’s’ a household name in the UK. Therefore, saying “A few weekends ago I went to Sainsbury’s” is not particularly unusual. But, saying “a few weekends ago I went to Sainsbury’s in 1869”... Now, that’s pretty unusual.

Unhelpfully only labelled as in ‘Covent Garden Piazza’ this little ‘pop-up museum’ was difficult to find, hidden on a little side street of the piazza. Due to its impermanence, local tour guides and shop assistants couldn’t direct us either. Eventually, we turned to twitter and found recent tweets which featured photographs of the surrounding location. We joined a queue of people eager to get a peek inside. As the doors opened, out sprung a man with a cockney accent and a cup and ball toy. The experience had begun. He walked along the line, chatting to visitors and singing music hall tunes as he went.

Inside, we walked through a dark, narrow Victorian street, meeting characters who excitedly told us about the incredible new store which had just opened. The atmosphere made the experience exciting, the sights and sounds made me eager to be taken on the journey. One of the characters we met pointed out that we’d dropped our shopping lists. How would we know what to buy without them? The lists were distributed amongst our group. On it were all kinds of things you’d expect to buy in Sainsbury’s… butter, milk, pasties, tinned goods. This clearly laid out the context and significance of the store opening as well as heightening my anticipation further.

Before we entered the store, we met a man trying out his new invention… the camera. He was looking for new models, so if we liked, we were able to dig around in the costume box to find a parasol, top hat, or shawl to wear for the photograph which was then ‘developed’ for us. This part of the experience, I thought, was fantastic. Let me confess something: I love costumes. Most museums know that people love costumes and have a little box filled with tiny, child-sized costumes in the corner. It is not unheard of for me to try desperately to try on the mini clothes, always in vain. I enjoyed that this experience encouraged adults to interact and allowed adults to be excited. The dressing-up section in museums shouldn’t be restricted to children.

Then we stepped inside the recreated store. Immediately we were greeted by a beaming concierge who told us we would need to visit each sales person to get a stamp on our shopping list and learn about Sainsbury’s throughout the decades. The shop floor was busy and the ‘shop keepers’ had to speak loudly over the hubbub of the shop. We visited stalls from 1880’s all the way through to the first ‘self-service’ in 1950. It was fantastic, funny and a really engaging way to learn about how shopping has changed. For example, the man in charge game and poultry kiosk asked us how many months had the letter ‘r’ in them. 10? 7? 9? Guesses were flung out by members of my group. Eventually someone settled on 8. “8! Exactly, Sir. And they are the months when poultry and other game are in season. January, February, March, April, September, October, November, December.” This was a fantastic opportunity to learn about where some of our food comes from and how it has changed in the past 150 years.

Recreated store and sales people
PHOTOGRAPH BY Chloe Phillips-Bartlett

When we’d completed our list, we left the shop and emerged into a more traditional museum exhibition space, which contained timelines and artefacts from the Sainsbury’s archive. I particularly enjoyed straining to read the tiny text on an old tea-tin card, which re-told fairy stories as if they’d contained Sainsbury’s own brand tea. The exhibition did a wonderful job of telling about some of the innovative ideas that Sainsbury’s has fostered over the years such as having their packaging designed by a pop artist, being the first shop to use self-checkouts, or their Active Kids campaign which rewarded customers with vouchers they could donate to local primary schools or kids clubs who, in turn, redeemed them for sports equipment. The artefacts came from the Sainsbury’s archive, which is housed by the Museum of London and available to access online:

Recreated fairy tales with Sainsbury's brands in the text
PHOTOGRAPH BY Chloe Phillips-Bartlett

When I first read about this exhibition, I was convinced it would be a shallow marketing ploy. To some extent it was, but it felt like so much more than that. It showed the passion and excitement that Sainsbury's and its staff have for helping customers and encouraged me to think of an every-day experience differently, which is, of course, exactly what marketing is about. But it’s also what museums should be about: passion, excitement, and learning.

The queue outside the pop-up museum had grown 15 minutes before they even opened in the morning. One of the reasons people don’t visit museums is that they think that ‘oh well, the museum will be there next weekend’ and never get around to it. Sainsbury’s made this a limited-time event and thus made it something you had to be desperate and proactive to visit. Make museum exhibitions a limited-time event. Make it interactive. Make it relevant to every-day life. Immerse visitors in the sensor reality of the scene with soundscapes, smells and actors. I never thought I’d say this, but maybe museums have a lot to learn from Sainsbury’s.

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Chloe Phillips-Bartlett