An extraordinary world: The story of London's newly rehomed Museum of Brands and Packaging

By Ben Miller | 24 March 2016

Now in its impressive new Notting Hill home, the Museum of Brands and Packaging officially opens its Time Tunnel this weekend. Founder Robert Opie tells us about the story so far

A photo of ancient brands and packaging from the museum in London's Notting Hill
© Julian Hanford
"I took on this project 50 years ago not knowing where I was going to end up but I could see that things like this needed to be saved at the time and put into a historical context, and that’s what I set out to do. This is the result so far.

The museum is all about showing the items to say ‘yes, it was like this.’ Even in 100 years’ time people will say ‘my god, that was a strange something or other.’

This is a museum where we want people to be engaged, talking, reminiscing, realising what an extraordinary world we’re living in and what a journey it’s been over 200 years. The pace of change is phenomenal. We need this story to show how it all happened.

The way I look at this museum sometimes is as a phenomenally large jigsaw where I’ve pulled together hundreds of thousands of items to see how it all fits together.

It’s only when you fit those pieces together that you see how that story works and you see the picture of our society. Together, they abundantly show a huge story which cannot be told without a lot of material.

I’m not trying to cram in a vast amount of material on purpose. If you don’t do it that way you don’t get the picture. You can’t second-guess what items will relate to each visitor. But that’s great because people explain it to each other and you get that enthusiasm and excitement. It’s about your roots and where you come from and how you fit into this story.

A photo of ancient brands and packaging from the museum in London's Notting Hill
© Julian Hanford
Blowing the V&A's mind

I started saving contemporary packaging when I was still at school, and then had this exhibition at the V&A in 1975. It was split into subjects and only about 3,000 items. That blew the V&A’s mind.

I was still working in market research. The reception was just extraordinary. Here was the V&A showing an Oxo Cube. That was surprising to a lot of people. The V&A didn’t do that kind of thing so for them it was quite quirky.

Brands always have a tough time because they can see their share dropping and they may just do the wrong thing at the wrong moment. I tell marketing people to be cautious but bold and have a plan b to fall back on.

If there was a rule for everybody, everyone would use it. Everybody’s doing limited editions and branching out and doing different things which makes my life a nightmare, because you have to buy 20 different packets. It’s horrifying.

I think the V&A was surprised at the volume of people: we had something like 80,000 people in seven weeks. The place was absolutely packed.

A photo of ancient brands and packaging from the museum in London's Notting Hill
© Julian Hanford
It’s always difficult to remember when I first started collecting the packaging. It was just a case of ‘this needs to be saved before it gets thrown away.’ The idea of a museum was very much in my head as I was saving this kind of material. I initially kept it in my parents’ house.

When the museum moved to Gloucester, in 1984, I tried to get away from the word museum, seeing it as an antiquated word, but people didn’t get it.

We moved to London and opened at the end of 2005, on the other side of Portobello for ten years. It feels like a long time, particularly when the body doesn’t want to pick that bit up that someone’s dropped.

I had always looked at London as a far too intense and competitive city for a museum. But financially our previous space was there and had the right credentials. It has always seemed extraordinary to me that nobody has looked at this as a serious subject.

Sometimes you see things in museums which are curiosities. But this is a highly important subject, a huge part of everybody’s lives, and yet nothing has really been done about it.

A photo of ancient brands and packaging from the museum in London's Notting Hill
© Julian Hanford
Consumer explosion

Everyday items have always been seen as a bit throwaway. Over time the arts and sciences have had that respect. It’s a bit of snobbery. It’s not a subject which anyone takes, or has so far taken, very seriously.

This is an early attempt to understand the consumer explosion, the revolution that’s happened over the last 200 years.

What always excites me is when you get not just families, but groups of people and individuals coming and all speaking to each other – complete strangers, but they have a common bond with a particular product and they can talk about their memories of that product.

Just recently I’ve made a two-hour DVD. We took more than 100 recollections from 35 interviews. It took me three years to do it.

People would say very similar things about the same objects. They would say, ‘I was the only person in the country who was limited to the number of Smarties I could have. In the 1950s or 1960s I was only allowed to have five Smarties.’ Someone else would say the same thing, but they felt like they were individuals.

A photo of ancient brands and packaging from the museum in London's Notting Hill
© Julian Hanford
A fusion of two mega-stories

The products are part of our social lives. That for me is exactly what the point of the museum is. It has many, many different angles, but two important ones are the roles these objects have played in our everyday lives and the marketing of them, the graphics, the way that consumer society has utterly changed the way we live.

It’s a fusion of these two mega-stories which combine and reflect on one another naturally.

I am horribly hands-on. You have to be. We don’t have huge numbers of staff. I’ve done all the curatorial side myself, always. The material we have on display is the stuff everyone has around them all the time at home, the stuff that you go down the high street and buy.

In many ways it is the most basic form of anything because we handle these things every single day of our lives and yet we don’t understand what they are.

My expectations are horribly high. Nothing ever goes to plan. Doing a new museum is a highly complex thing, particularly when you’ve got this quantity of objects. I don’t know how many objects are here but in the previous museum there were over 12,000 and there will probably be more here.

A photo of ancient brands and packaging from the museum in London's Notting Hill
© Julian Hanford
The whole story is massively long and complex but generally you can boil it down into a few statements: the packaged products, the brands, the change in social tastes, the advances in technology – the driving force in any change – and design. You could look at the museum just on any one of those levels.

We all want to see where we’re going. Here we are deciding whether to get out of Europe or not – highly unpredictable and difficult to know whether it’s a good thing. Here you have the benefit of hindsight because you can see history being used as a platform to see whether we have made progress in the right way. History is all about successes, but also mistakes.

Time Tunnel

We’ve had to put things in the Time Tunnel on display in six weeks. It’s been hectic. Every day I’m working on the displays and upgrading. This stuff is not only valuable, it’s very fragile.

I get excited by the cheaper end – things that are for everybody, not just the toffs. This is a society which is being equalised over the 200-year period. Technology makes it look very ordinary today but at the time it was a way of opening up the world because you would hardly have gone outside of your own village.

We forget, in today’s world, how different it was, and yet some things are the same. The principles of jigsaws are exactly the same. Children still like playing with soldiers. They reflect fashions and adult life because that’s what children want, to be playing grown-up.

A photo of ancient brands and packaging from the museum in London's Notting Hill
© Julian Hanford
Technology tends to be very expensive in its first phase – a motorcar, an aeroplane, electricity, whatever it is. Cameras, until the brownie came out, were expensive. Quite often that kind of thing takes 60 years until most people can afford it. The motorcar didn’t become affordable to most until the 1960s or 1970s.

People ask ‘how has this kind of thing survived?’ That’s the kind of reaction that I want. But the biggest thrill is when you get three generations of family all talking to each other about what that means to them, particularly if parents are then telling their children what life was like at the time they remember.

Triggers for memories

Children are benefitting immensely from stories that they’ve probably never heard of. These are triggers for memories. They also don’t realise certain brands went so far back. It just gives you a totally different understanding of everyday life.

In the 1950s we went through this really quite zany post-war period of excitement. Televisions were rampant. New things like plastics were really taking off and everything feels a bit mad in that section, which is great.

I’m always thinking about the mass market. This is sort of everybody’s museum of everything, but looking at it from the point of view of mass manufacture and mass impact. One thing, like a television programme, can have a big impact or be a mass phenomenon like EastEnders or Coronation Street. When they began it was a big moment.

A photo of ancient brands and packaging from the museum in London's Notting Hill
© Julian Hanford
There are a lot of things I’d buy if I had the money, but it’s as much about the time. I always save Red Nose Day stuff, but last year I could not get one or two of the high street shops to give me some of the display items. I went in time after time.

There’s such a culture of ‘oh god, we can’t let you have this item.’ It’s dreadful. There’s a huge turnover in staff because it’s a much more 24/7 culture, so you don’t go to see the same person.

It sounds mad: ‘I’m saving this for a museum and I want it for the future.’ There are all kinds of difficulties like that. They usually have this thing of needing to send it back to head office.

I’m trying to give a balanced view of how life was, which is inevitably impossible. I’m showing the actual objects of a period drama through real objects you can look at. Your mind is being thrown around – hopefully not literally – and you’ve got that wonderful dexterity of material.

When you’ve got a family visiting with an older relative, who can say something about their grandparent, that covers 100 years of history. It’s phenomenal."

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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