‘Masses of people doing ordinary things…that’s really what history mostly is…I thought it might be interesting… to consider the ordinary things in life… and treat them as if they were important, too’, says Bill Bryson in At Home – A Short History of Private Life.
Bryson’s words reflect those of Robert Opie, the founder of the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in an interview in 1993 with art historian John Elsner. In 1963, while on route to visit friends in Scotland, Opie, then aged 16, spent the night in Inverness. At a loss for sustenance, he bought a packet of Mackintosh’s Munchies from a vending machine, and as he looked at the wrapper he suddenly thought, ‘If I throw this away I will never, ever, see it again, and yet here is a whole wealth of history… something I should be saving…an enormous part of social history.’
Since that evening Opie has collected over 500,000 items of consumer culture from the past 150 years: household and everyday products, toys and games, wartime ephemera and associated packaging and advertising. Now over 12,000 of these tins, boxes, bottles, pots, cans, song sheets, travel brochures, magazines, newspapers and post cards fill the display shelves in the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising.
Fortunately for the teenage boy, his parents, Iona and Peter, were also collectors; they would not recoil from the sight of piles of packaging nestling in his bedroom. Their interests lay in children’s literature, toys and games: the Opies edited the classic anthology The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes.
But while Opie’s parents concentrated on one particular strand of everyday family life, Robert Opie, like Bryson, has focused on the whole gamut of daily life – never undervaluing the social history of the ordinary. What makes Opie’s social history different from Bryson’s is that is it a visual recording, rather than a written history, of domestic life.
‘What I want is to explore,’ explains Opie, ‘is how this whole consumer revolution has affected us over the past 150 years; in which case, I have to understand everything that is affecting people on an every day level, and that goes into every blessed thing that we have around us in our homes, in the street and in the shops.’
What also distinguishes Opie’s objects of social history is that they give aesthetic pleasure; in their way, they are as deserving of appreciation as are the fine art collections in museums, and no less worthy of display because of their association with consumer culture. Like pictures and sculptures, the brands and packages – as images, shapes and materials – transmit messages, stylishly and artfully, about ways of living and cultural and political phenomena. Opie warmly calls them ‘art for the common people’.
Indeed, there are well-established artists widely praised for the images they have created to shape ‘corporate’ identities. Celebrated graphic designer Alan Fletcher (1931–2006) designed the logo for the Victoria and Albert Museum. Another acclaimed graphic designer, Milton Glaser (b. 1929), is best known for the ‘I Love New York’ logo. For Guinness, John Gilroy (1898–1985), a frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy, created a menagerie of zoo animals, including the iconic toucan. Cartoonist and humorist H.M. Bateman (1887–1970) also designed for Guinness. Just before he died, Joan Miró (1893–1983) designed the red, black and yellow sun logo for the Spanish nation and Spanish tourism.
Robert Opie’s collection reminds us how developments within the creative industries on the one hand and social, political and technological changes on the other can influence each other. The Kodak camera introduced in the late Victorian era meant that ordinary folk could have family portraits taken, where previously portraits were the province of artists and commissioned only by the wealthy. The introduction of photographic plates helped to establish photography as a profession.
The discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 led to a fashion for ‘Egyptian style’, reflected in Art Deco graphics, images and shapes in packaging and advertising. During the Second World War, covers of women’s magazines promoted the glamorous life of women in uniform, the colour-illustrated models (always with wavy hair and pale skin) were beautiful and dressed in uniform – Pond’s cold cream ‘guards your beauty when on duty’.
The advent of television inspired advertisers to feature TV cartoon characters on breakfast cereal boxes. Increasing travel to Europe helped to boost the popularity of Vesta ‘foreign’ ready-made meals. The advent of relatively easy-to-build supermarkets and ‘self-service’ shops encouraged the use of bolder, more vibrant packaging graphics to draw customers’ attention away from competitors. Video art is now a popular form of installation art, and videos are an established means of advertising. Branding now involves the use of sound and moving images outside the cinema and television, as the animated ‘poster’ has arrived in the streets.
When we visit the Museum we travel through time, starting in the Victorian era, and continuing through the Edwardian era and subsequent decades. In each area there are panels noting significant political and social events and movements that have had an impact on packaging. There are fascinating sections concentrating on products’ branding (image creation), packaging materials and environmental issues, and legal affairs.
I see covers of Penguin paperbacks and zip fasteners for men’s trousers, first marketed in the 1930s (when ‘zipper’ was a trademark), Biros introduced in the 1940s, a jukebox dating from the 1950s and transistor radios from the 1960s. Dating from the 1980s are low-calorie slimming products. Nowadays, celebrity endorsements and nutritional information are widespread packaging features. Every example, Opie comments, ‘adds flesh to a historical framework’.
It is astounding how many brands have withstood the passage of time. Martell’s brandy, Brasso polish and Toblerone chocolate, for example, originated in 1877, 1905 and 1908 respectively. Opie believes people have a deep-seated need for continuity, consistency.
One discovers that drinks cans are 100% recyclable, time and again, and that we drink up eight million cans daily in Britain. Packaging might seem wasteful but in fact surveys show that a 1% increase in packaging produces a 1.6% decrease in food waste. We buy 18 million bananas each day but 8% go ‘bad’. A thin plastic bag can extend the life of a banana by three days, preventing 1.6 million bananas from being thrown away daily. Plastic bottles are lighter and less costly to transport than glass, but would we settle for wine in plastic bottles? asks Opie. Another interesting fact is that specific colour shades can be registered as trademarks. Cadbury’s purple and Milka lilac are both protected.
The collection’s permanent display in London owes its origins to an exhibition of items from Opie’s collection in 1975 at London’s Victorian and Albert Museum entitled The Pack Age: A Century of Wrapping It Up (no catalogue is available). It was so popular that that it gave Opie the faith to seek permanent premises for part of his collection. In 1984 he established a museum in Gloucester, but when the museum’s lease ended in 2001 the exhibits were put into storage until a new home could be found.
Fortunately, with the aid of brand consultants Pi Global, and other major sponsors such as Kellogg’s, Cadbury’s and Diageo (Johnnie Walker, Justerini & Brooks), premises were found in London’s trendy Notting Hill neighbourhood. The doors opened in 2005. (The museum has since been re-located to larger premises in the area.)
Each year this small museum attracts 30,000 visitors, one-third from overseas. Many signing the visitors’ book work within the branding, packaging and advertising industries. I hope that one day there will be a published comprehensive guide to the museum combined with a substantial catalogue – though a detailed one could be too cumbersome.
There are few examples of computers and mobile telephones and none of iPads and iPhones in the Museum, although they are very much a part of consumer culture. The packaging, save for ‘Apples’, might not be so beautiful though! Time, space and cost account for their absence. But if ever they do go on display, their presence will remind us that a great volume of what we buy in the future will be through the Internet and never become the physical objects we select from the shelves – we’ll simply receive them through the post, and the packaging may not be so attractive, or interesting or ‘cool’.
As in the future so much of social history will be online, how can we ensure that it – its physicality that it is – is preserved for the future? Would a digital database cataloguing Opie’s collection and other consumer culture phenomena ensure against dark patches appearing in our heritage?
For information about visiting the the Museum, please visit http://www.museumofbrands.com/ Other relevant information may be found at http://www.robertopiecollection.com/ From this site one may buy items of British ‘nostalgia’.
This article first appeared in Cassone: The International Online Magazine of Art and Art Books in the July 2011 issue. The displays on view at present will be somewhat different from those which were on display in 2011.