Behind the Scenes at the Brand Museum

Packaging as culture and history

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With so much current attention being focused upon packaging as waste, it’s a relief to know that one man’s rubbish is another man’s reminiscences. Thank God, or at least the capacity for human quirkiness, for Robert Opie: self-appointed archivist of the packaging industry’s best endeavours stretching back to the first arrival of brands on Victorian retail shelves. Since 1963, Opie has pretty much single-handedly been storing up examples of anything and everything from tins of Andrew’s Liver Salts to packets of Zubes throat pastilles to provide a unique testament to the role played by packaging in shaping consumer culture.
Well over half a million packs of varying shapes and sizes have passed through Robert Opie’s hands over the past forty-five years since he first started collecting what the rest of us less mindfully discard — the pick of which (some 10,000 different items) are displayed decade by decade within the Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising, tucked away in a fashionable Notting Hill Gate (London) mews. Open every day apart from Mondays and, of course, Christmas Day, the museum is targeted towards attracting a respectable annual 50,000 visitor footfalls within the next five years, and is equally a source of wonderment to members of the general public as it is to brand managers and designers.

For many, a dose of personal nostalgia more than justifies the price of admission (£5.80 / €7); for others, there’s the fascination of charting the impact of technological change on brand evolution. In this museum the past, it seems, is whatever country you want it to be.

Mementoes not memorabilia
Opie himself is arguably the most compelling exhibit of all: a one-man compendium of packaging wit and wisdom, and whom you’re quite likely to bump into at any moment during your trip along memory lane. A five-minute chat about whatever it is that catches your eye — whether it’s the pronounced Art Deco imagery prevalent in the thirties or the part played by cartoon characters in promoting anything from biscuits to board games — will undoubtedly add to the experience.

Robert Opie’s passion — some would call it obsession — for contemporary packaging dates back to when most self-respecting teenagers were busy discovering the Beatles, and as a 16-year-old on a wet and wind-swept Scottish railway platform he came face to face with his destiny through the innocent enough guise of a pack of Mackintosh’s ‘Munchies.’

Born into a family of social historians with a penchant for collecting — with his parents Iona and Peter it was nursery rhymes — Robert Opie suddenly recognised a significance far beyond just litter in that discarded wrapper. It proved to be the defining moment of his life.

“I have a personal aversion to the term ‘memorabilia’; what we have here in the museum are souvenirs or mementoes that tell many different stories from many different points of view. I think of it as a structure built up of all sorts of bricks, and each one has its own tale to tell. I often refer to it as a jigsaw puzzle that I’ve been trying to put together for the past 40 plus years,” says Robert Opie. “The point of understanding history is to realise why and where you are today.”

In point of fact, Opie’s collection itself very nearly became history. Having been originally sited for seventeen years in the run-down Gloucester docks area, it became the casualty of an urban regeneration programme it had been largely responsible for facilitating.  That was in 2001, and the contents of the museum spent the next three years moth-balled in an unnamed MoD establishment until the London-based design agency PI International corralled enough interest from a number of leading brands including Kellogg’s, Cadbury’s and Diageo to find it a new home alongside its Notting Hill premises at a cost estimated to be the better part of €1.7 million (INR 13.6 million). In the process, the museum adopted charitable status and a new name (it had hitherto been the Museum of Advertising & Packaging).

Of the 1000 or so different brands represented within the museum, PI International MD Chris Griffin reckons that only about ten maintain decent collections of their own. Heritage would likewise appear to be an area of neglect for packaging manufacturers, who haven’t exactly been forthcoming in lending much assistance to the project, says Griffin. “Possibly, it’s because they’re more pre-occupied in coping with the here and now. Even so, what does surprise me is that so few of them have seen it as an opportunity,” he says. “Walking through our doors every single day are the brand owners that are buying packaging; you’d think the industry would jump at the chance. It’s bizarre to think that they’re not doing more to get their names in front of these prospective customers in this context.”

Sponsorship from the brands has been largely allocated towards meeting the cost of building, signage, lighting and so forth rather than the day to day running of the museum, which covers its running costs through admission charges; the sale of scrapbooks and related literature and gifts via its shop; and increasingly through the hiring out of the venue for meetings and corporate events.

Having failed to step in to hold on to the museum in the first place, the UK packaging industry appears to be remiss in ignoring the pulling power of arguably what is one of its better assets. “Out of the most recent 70–80 bookings, only one-fifth were packaging manufacturers. Most of the bookings come from brands and agencies,” points out Griffin.

Barometer of change
Not too surprisingly, retailing trends have exerted the greatest influence upon packaging design and structure: none more so than the emergence of the supermarket in the ‘sixties. ‘Rather than going into a shop having decided what you were going to buy, you could now go in and effectively help and serve yourself,’ explains Robert Opie. ‘It was a huge difference; not only in the way that we went shopping but in the way that packaging had to react: by being a bit more brazen, a bit more colourful, a bit more branded in order to shout out from the shelf because the customer was making the decision as much as anyone else.’

Mass marketing, of course, equates to commoditisation: another driver determining pack design, says Opie. “It’s a trade-off between the cost of production and the appeal of the product. When a lot of what we now think of as everyday products began their life they were essentially positioned as luxury items. In the UK, Heinz Tomato Ketchup started out as an exclusive line through Fortnum & Mason; it’s now something that we can all afford.

“Ever since the sixties, we’ve been focused upon making packaging easier and cheaper. This differentiation equally applies to other products that we now tend to view as commodity items. Heinz Tomato Soup or Nestlé Condensed Milk up to the thirties would have had an additional wrapper to the one that went around the tin itself, because the manufacturer wanted to present something that was absolutely perfect not only on the inside but on the outside as well.” It’s this steady rate of evolution that makes a visit to the museum uniquely fascinating; particularly so those display cabinets that focus upon a single product in its various guises through the years.

Specifically themed exhibitions pinpointing a given period or moment in time are staged on a regular basis. Running through until May ’09 is ‘Sweet Sixties’: a parade of much loved confectionery packs including a whole host of chocolate products long past their sell-by date such as Tiffin, Topic, Skippy, Bar Six and Lucky Numbers. “The sixties were really the last decade of the shop-window for confectionery,” says Opie. ‘It was a time when we really did start to enjoy more disposable income; hence, a continuing rush of more and more confectionery choices coming through.

“It was a great time for new products — not necessarily as successful as back in the thirties, when the market was very much a blank canvas — and a time during which confectionery manufacturers were experimenting with new ideas with which to tempt us.”

Thermo-formed trays may have replaced individual paper doilies within boxed chocolates, but to all outward appearances many of the most successful products do bear a striking resemblance to the way they were, even as long ago as in the “thirties when confectionery bridged the gap between luxury and common-place. To the untutored eye, despite the technical production changes that have been applied, the packaging of sweets such as the Mars bar or Kit Kat does seem to have a timeless appeal.

Its common-sense marketing, says Robert Opie. “We hook up with these brands as if they are our friends. The human race tends towards being relatively conservative; we don’t necessarily like change as such. The continuity of the visual image gives you a feel for the consistency of the content — and the quality of the product and the way in which it is promoted is very important.”

And maybe, this is the most important lesson that the Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising has to teach us — that whilst everything’s changed, in many ways everything is still the same.