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Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising

Be Happy editor Paul Critcher enjoys a journey through time at the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising

For many of us history and the past is a fascinating subject, but for others it can seem a little staid – an endless parade of dates, battles and political ideologies to make sense of. Nevertheless, great strides have been made in popularising the study of history – you only have too look at the success of TV shows such as Who do you think you are? (in which celebrities trace their family roots) and the series of books and programmes for children Horrible histories (which focuses on what to us now seem the more ludicrous or even disgusting elements of the past) to show that the subject can be wonderfully engaging. But, if parking yourself in front of the goggle box doesn't appeal, then a visit to the Robert Opie Collection at the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising (MOBPA) makes for an evocative trip to the past. Here you'll find an evolving collection of seemingly everyday objects amassed over almost 50 years, which tells the story of more than 150 years of British consumer society.

The museum is a stone's throw away from Portobello Market. A short walk through the affluent streets of Notting Hill brings you to a tucked away mews, where the museum is housed. In many ways it's an 'old school' museum, there's little in the way of interactive exhibits that you can pull, grab and watch on a screen that you get at so many other museums. But it doesn't matter and it's not necessary – the exhibits speak for themselves. 

My visit coincided with young group of foreign exchange students and, while my heart sank slightly at the prospect of fighting my way through them to view the exhibits, it was curious to watch their obvious delight when they discovered items they recalled from their recent childhoods. I had the same response, the only difference being that their giggles of excitement occurred in the Nineties and Noughties sections of the museum, mine took place in the Seventies and Eighties – isn't age a wonderful thing!

The museum is split into different time zones, which you walk through in chronological order, starting in the Victorian era and gradually making your way through the years until you reach the present day. It's a deceptive space, far bigger than you imagine when you first walk in and you could easily spend a couple of hours picking your way through the 10,000 items, although if time is short it's a great way to kill half an hour or so.

Kicking off in Victorian times, the move from trade sales to consumer sales is evident as and you can see that the products on view were packaged with the shopper in mind. Even this early there were brands that we still know today, such as Cadbury chocolates, Roses lime juice and Colman's mustard. It was a time when advertising was coming more to the fore with Millais' painting of bubbles used to promote Pears soap. But it's the curiosities that stick in my mind, products such as Swinborne calves feet gelatine and Goodall's ginger beer powder. Even better are the cleaning products and pest repellants on show, which helped the Victorians fights against cholera and typhoid. One example, Battles vermin killer, has the tagline 'Mice eat it readily and die on the spot' – a touch out of step with the touchy feeliness of today's advertising.

Moving into Edwardian times there are tins of biscuits, plates and posters showing support for the Boer War, badges with 'Votes for women' slogans and the advent of comedy in advertising. One particular advert shows two jolly coppers smoking Park Drive cigarettes, I think they are meant to appear in rapture at the purported good flavour of the tobacco, but to the modern audience – or at least me – they look stoned!

And so it goes on, with comics in the 1920s, such Film Fan which includes the tag line – 'The lively larks of Harold Lloyd'; recruitment posters during the war years asking 'Daddy what did you do in the Great War?'; and the new affluence of the 1950s when TVs, cosmetics and household appliances all make an appearance. 

By the time I reached the 1960s section, I could see more and more brands that are familiar today – brands such as Heinz, Cornflakes, Coca Cola and Bird's Eye frozen foods. But for me it was the time of my childhood – the Seventies and Eighties – that were so evocative. Here the impact of TV on advertising is evident with Mr Spock on packets of Kellogg's Sugar Smacks and other brands from my childhood such as Monster Munch, Discos, Smiths Crisps, and Frazzles. This was the beginning of the digital age, with games such as Astro Wars and  ZX Spectrum computers.

There are other sections to view, including an area dedicated to Royal memorabilia, a special 'Waste not want not' exhibit on wartime packaging and, placed in a suitably commercial area near the shop, a Guinness exhibition, which showcases some of the excellent artwork produced by the stout manufacturer over the years. 

One section well worth taking the time to look at is the Branding Section, which compares brands through the ages. It reveals a trend for products becoming bigger and the use of more plastic in packaging, but what I found of particular interest was how many brands have kept so close to the designs of their original incarnations many decades previously. Take, for example, the script used in Johnson's baby powder it remain almost unchanged.

I could be accused of being too enthusiastic about this museum, but it is delightful, so if you're visiting Portobello Market or the whitewashed environs of Notting Hill, I encourage to take a trip down memory lane – you'll love it.  

Need to know
Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising
2 Colville Mews, off Lonsdale Road, Notting Hill, London, W11 2AR
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm; Sunday 11am-4pm 
Closed on Mondays – except Bank Holidays
Admission prices: Adults £6.50; Children (7-16) £2.25; Concessions £4.00; Family £15
For further information go to www.museumofbrands.com 

The making of a museum
Forty years ago, Robert Opie saw the need to unravel the fascinating story of how consumer products and promotion had evolved since Victorian times. By 1975 Robert had enough material to hold his own exhibition, The Pack Age, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and then, after 16 years in market research, he opened the first museum devoted to the history of packaging and advertising in Gloucester in 1984.

You can take your pick as to whether Robert Opie is a consumer historian or a supermarket archaeologist, but after writing some 20 books and appearing on endless television and radio shows, he has become a leading authority on his subject. 

Robert Opie said: ‘On 8 September 1963, at the age of 16, I bought a packet of Munchies at Inverness Railway Station. While eating them I was struck by the idea that I should save the packaging and start collecting the designed and branded packages which would otherwise surely disappear forever. Forty years later, I am still collecting and have a list of about 1000 items which need to be collected. The Museum houses the highlights of my collection – evidence of a dynamic commercial system that delivers thousands of desirable items from all corners of the world, a feat arguably more complex than sending man to the Moon, but one still taken for granted. The collection has the power to stop visitors in their tracks as they reach a certain part of the Museum’s time tunnel and the era which contains their first memories.'

Exhibition: Jubilee, Jubilee
As the shops of Britain stack their shelves with commemorative souvenirs for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Museum of Brands opens its exhibition ‘Jubilee, Jubilee’ on 3 April 2012 to celebrate this historic occasion.

From the only previous Diamond Jubilee, for Queen Victoria in 1897 and through each royal occasion since, this colourful abundance of celebratory offerings tells the rich story of royal souvenirs.

From the traditional mugs, jugs, flags and chocolate tins to the weird and exotic (who would have bought a 1953 coronation souvenir gas stove lighter?), these curiosities have nevertheless become part of our culture and heritage.


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