A lined A4 notebook is pinned open on a board, heavily doodled with love hearts and the random thoughts of an 18-year-old girl, not so different to every other 18-year-old girl in history. “Just plain fuckin’ nice” is the title of a list of four retro-classic songs, including Bobby Darin’s I Wanna Be Around (1965), alongside the words “Chris Taylor loves Amy Winehouse” (with loves scored out), “Paul Watson loves Amy Winehouse” (with loves scored out), meticulous notes on how to fill in the form and send a cheque to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea, a shopping list including “£200 – fridge, £40 – Shelley’s Shoes, £50 – Chanel No.5?”, and five significantly more ominous words floating out from a flurry of love hearts: “diet no dairy or carbs”.
It’s testament to the mystery and absurdity of fame how the scraps of ordinary life become archaeological treasures in death, but it’s these inner-world details that stay with you throughout Amy: Beyond the Stage, the Design Museum’s first exhibition dedicated to a single musical artist. More than a year in production and instigated by her dad, Mitch (who asked Amy’s stylist, Naomi Perry, to approach the museum), it’s a mesmerising celebration of a still painfully short life: early-years notebooks and photos gifted by Amy’s mum, Janis; walls alive with TV screens showing early interviews and acoustic demo performances (unleashing the full force of the Winehouse personality and staggering vocal talent); a classy reconstruction of London’s Metropolis Studios; handwritten lyrics from Frank and Back to Black – unflinchingly honest and often hilarious – now under glass like exotic butterflies.
There’s also a palpable sadness: her best-known guitars hang silent on walls, her famed frocks static on mannequins, many of which are on loan after being sold at auction this November in Los Angeles, amassing over $4m (all profits from both auction and exhibition are earmarked for the Amy Winehouse Foundation).
The most affecting artefacts, though, are elsewhere: the street signs of Camden Square, north London, which fans claimed as graffitied books of condolence from the day she died in July 2011 (stolen 14 times and now belonging to the family), her beloved Wurlitzer jukebox, a used wand of mascara from the Back to Black era: by now she was a millionaire, but still loyal to the high street Rimmel brand (at the sight of which she’d no doubt shriek, “get the London look!”). No wonder, for Adele, Winehouse was the one in terms of influence – a screen shows Adele’s Albert Hall performance of September 2011, imploring the audience to shine their phone lights so the darkened venue becomes a constellation of stars: “So Amy can see us now, from upstairs.”
The psychological turmoil Winehouse endured, through the perils of fame and addiction, is seen through a different lens today. One exhibit, “In the limelight”, ponders how the mainstream media of the mid-to-late 2000s, which gleefully pilloried her struggles, “implying that Amy was dysfunctional rather than in need of empathy and support”, has now evolved in a society encouraging “the growing awareness of the connection between public perception and self-esteem”. Would she be alive, now, had she received today’s level of support? Gallingly, she probably would.
The exhibition finale is the requisite “immersive experience”, a mirrored, semi-circular space showing performance footage of Tears Dry on Their Own from Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2007 (reimagined as the jazz club Joe’s Pub in New York), the images distorted into an impressionistic, painterly dreamscape, simultaneously beautiful, euphoric and disturbingly ghostly. It’s a gut thumper of a conclusion, in which Amy Winehouse is no longer immortal through her music – she was a gifted 27-year-old woman who is gone forever. It’s also testament to the mysteries of death itself, that the further away her life recedes, the more radiant her brilliance becomes.