We are what we buy. An unpalatable thought in some ways but like most glib generalisations about the human condition, there’s more than a few grains of truth in that statement. Since the dawn of the consumer society, the mass-produced goods we buy have continued to define our lives; reflecting both our basic needs and ever-changing materialistic fantasies at any given time in modern history. Manufacturers have, of course, played a dominant role in shaping popular tastes and desires, relentlessly bombarding us with new goods that we didn’t even know we wanted. Unsurprisingly, we have developed a strong, emotional (if sub-conscious) bond with numerous favourite products and, by extension, the packaging that gives them identity. Yet, despite that, historians have tended to sidestep or trivialise this fascinating, revealing aspect of Western society.
Recognising this, in the late 1960’s, market researcher Robert Opie began his search for our “throwaway history”. A long-term collector of food packaging, he began working towards creating an exhibition of his artefacts which was eventually staged at the Victoria & Albert Museum, to great acclaim, in late 1975 / early 1976. Positive feedback from the media and the public may have validated Opie’s view that our historical relationship with the things we buy is “the biggest story never told” but it wouldn’t be until 1984 that his first permanent museum opened in Gloucester. The expiry of the building’s lease resulted in a move to London’s Notting Hill in 2005 where the museum can currently be found, tucked away in a quiet mews, a 5 minute walk away from the famous Portobello Road. Its compact size is deceptive. The premises may be microscopic compared to the nearby South Kensington mansions that house the V&A and Natural History collections but each meticulously arranged display case is crammed with intriguing, authentic exhibits – each with its own story to tell. The main body of the exhibition is structured chronologically, its dimly-lit corridors forming a captivating time tunnel taking us from the Victorian era to the 2000’s.
Throughout the journey, products are aligned to key historical events giving them an all-important context that makes the experience as educational as it is entertaining and nostalgic. The advent of radio in the 1920’s is illustrated by a plethora of magazine covers, newspaper articles, and the bulky mahogany cabinets that housed the family wireless. However, the impact of the new technology is also felt in the more ephemeral items such as the tin of Radio Toffee. The very idea of confectionary being themed around what would soon become a mundane household appliance gives a heart-warming sense of the excitement that met this seismic advance in home entertainment. The birth of television is also represented by a wealth of images from publications and a very early example of a domestic set. Both innovations are revisited further along the timeline with a spectacularly colourful display of 1960’s transistor radios and a yellow, spherical portable TV that could have come direct from The Prisoner’s prop department. Equally fascinating are the cases devoted to the shopping baskets of wartime Britain. The cans of powdered egg, ration books, and references to the scarcity of basic provisions are a timely reminder of what real austerity must have felt like.
With such a wide remit and limited space, decisions on the types of exhibits for inclusion must have been a challenge. Sensibly, much of the museum is devoted to food – a subject of universal appeal and one that evokes the greatest sensation of nostalgia. Each era-specific display is bursting with the colourful groceries of yesteryear. Wonderfully bizarre and mercifully short-lived lines such as Heinz Kidney Soup and freeze-dried Brussels sprouts (both from the late 60’s) nestle alongside familiar household favourites that frequently turn out to have a much lengthier history than you’d perhaps imagine. We learn, for example, that Cadburys’ Crunchie and Lucozade first hit the shelves in the late 1920’s; the evolution of their packaging chronologically charted throughout the exhibition along with many other beloved brands.
But it’s those long-forgotten, often fad-based products that prove to be the highlights of collection particularly those from our childhood years. For me, having grown up in 1970’s, the several displays devoted to that decade were a joy to behold. The psychedelic explosion of exciting new snacks, cereals, and soft drinks is vividly depicted via 100’s of eye-popping artefacts many of which had long been relegated to my sub-conscious – the Tom & Jerry-themed fizzy drink Jokers, Weekend chocolates (a Christmas essential – complete with magically-preserved contents), Pop Stars crisps featuring an illustration of some imaginary teen idol in a Mexican wrestler’s mask! Naturally, most of the greatly-missed obscurities from the era – salt-encrusted snacks like Rancheros and Football Crazy, and anti-nutritional cereals Puffa Puffa Rice and Golden Nuggets – are also present.
Alongside the 1970’s groceries, there’s also a respectable selection of toys showing a growing trend towards capitalising on the popular entertainment icons of the day. Board games based on TV shows hold a particular charm (with the notable exception of the box lid that features a grotesque, leering portrait of Jimmy Savile). The predilection for using painted images of light entertainment stars – reminiscent of those unfathomably creepy Look-In covers – on the packaging is very much in evidence and hugely evocative of those more innocent times.
The 1980’s and 1990’s are given a similar treatment, dominated by the more colourful, frivolous items that fuelled our pre-pubescent hunger pangs and birthday wish-list fantasies. Naturally, as we approach the 2000’s, the sense of nostalgic awe wanes although the more contemporary packaging certainly serves to illustrate how dramatically aesthetic values have changed over a relatively short span of time.
At the end of “time tunnel” section, certain key aspect of advertising and packaging are briefly covered in several separate displays, with foreign brands, motoring-specific products, and copyright amongst the subjects included. Who knew that Cadburys hold legal ownership over the use of that particular shade of purple? Or that Jammie Dodgers faced competition from a lesser brand that cheekily used packaging almost identical to the distinctive original?
As with all museums, the visit ends in a gift-shop. While limited space restricts the scope of goods, there’s a reasonable selection of vintage posters, books, and brand-adorned mugs and coasters for sale. In addition to Robert Opie’s famous scrapbooks, the most exciting item on offer is the curator’s brand new documentary DVD In Search Of Our Throwaway History (review to follow). After perusing the shop, you can enjoy an expensive half-filled mug of coffee served by a surly member of the ticket-office staff while you watch a selection of wonderful, often obscure vintage TV adverts.
Refreshments and gruff staff aside, the Museum Of Brands, Packaging, & Advertising is an essential part of your next day-out in London. Education and light-hearted nostalgia are a potent combination, and Opie’s emporium of consumer history manages a perfect balance of both. If only it was ten times as big!