Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge reopened in February 2018 following a major capital project, which included a new and improved shop space. Three months later, we launched an online shop.
At the start of 2020, with a couple of years’ trading under our belt, it felt as if we were settling into our new space and hitting our stride in terms of product ranges and sales. Then the pandemic hit and like other museums we closed our doors with just a few days’ notice.
Our focus has naturally shifted to the online shop during the pandemic, and during the initial lockdown we worked hard to make as many of our products available as possible. We work with a lot of small-scale designer-makers, and it was important to us to continue supporting them as best we could during the pandemic.
The advantage of these small brands was that many already worked from home studios so were easily able to continue fulfilling our orders. They were also keen to support our move online by providing ready-to-go product photography and descriptions.
What became clear from our customers during the pandemic was how highly they valued products that evoked memories of and strengthened their connection to Kettle’s Yard during its closure.
We have always looked for unique ways to merchandise the collection at Kettle’s Yard, which can be something of a challenge, as not only are the artworks primarily 20th century and therefore subject to copyright, but the collection spans well beyond traditional painting and sculpture to encompass natural objects, furniture, plants and other curiosities.
Capturing these less obvious references has always been core to our product development and has led to successful collaborations such as the pot pourri scented candle with Join, inspired by a letter from Kettle’s Yard Founder Jim Ede in which he describes the ‘recipe’ for his homemade pot pourri; or our Lemon on a Pewter Dish jewellery by I Am Acrylic.
In the early days of lockdown, one of our curators circulated a picture of our Hoya Carnosa (otherwise known as a waxflower or waxplant) in flower in the empty house, which sparked an idea to develop a jewellery range inspired by one of the most imposing plant specimens in our collection trailing some length down and across the internal balcony in the upper extension.
We chose to work with a fair trade jewellery brand to develop the range. Just Trade utilised the skilled work of their artisans in South America, carving tagua (the seed of the ivory palm) to recreate the delicate individual flowers. The range launched in store at the end of November and will be available online soon.
We also created a range of letterbox gifts, launched in October, recognising the desire from customers to send their best wishes and shared memories to loved ones who they might be unable to visit.
The gifts comprise products from our existing core ranges, so meant little financial outlay beyond the new packaging, and have proved a successful line that we will certainly continue when things return to “normal”.
Maintaining and growing online retail has been no mean feat during the pandemic, but to me it has highlighted some distinct advantages that cultural retail outlets have over the high street.
Our often small teams are passionate, agile and ready to adapt; our collections and venues hold rich resources ready to be tapped; and most importantly we have a customer base with a real love and willingness to support the special places we represent.
Wider messaging around shopping small and local seems to have had a real impact this year, with the public making conscious decisions about who and what their purchases support. Long may it continue.
Laura Pryke is the retail manager and buyer at Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge