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Jim gets inside packages

The Museum of Brands Packaging and Advertising is not the easiest place to find. Situated in Notting Hill, in Colville Mews (just off the Portobello Road) this small, delightful museum is a shrine to the art of advertising and a must place to go for any aspiring graphic designer. It is all the collection of one man, the ‘consumer historian’, Robert Opie, who in the 1970s, starting with a single packet of Munchies, decided to collect examples of advertising and packaging which until then would be considered mere ephemera and easily discarded. In 2005 his collection moved to these premises in London and became an important addition to the list of smaller, specialist museums now to be found in the Capital. Once discovered (and on a Saturday that means battling your way down the Portobello Road Market), you will find a display of around 12,000 items in a time line that runs from Victorian Reign to the present day. It shows how advertising and branding has changed with the decades and how it responded to new inventions and social changes.
Packaging and advertising meant that consumers could be more confident in the quality of the product they were buying and that the adulteration of goods with additives, once a common practice could be controlled. In Victorian society, competition was intense with new inventions and products coming on to the market. The hand pumped vacuum cleaner was a two-person operation but only for the very rich, whilst the Crystal wireless set was an early precursor to today’s digital revolution. Royal Academicians were employed as graphic designers and hand painted illustrations were the order of the day. The advertising industry was well under way in Victorian times and as you pass through the Time Tunnel that makes up this museum you discover how advertising and packaging is effected by changes in society and the needs of consumers. The enthusiastic Victorians crammed every surface of their packaging with advertising, elaborate lettering and realistic paintings of factories and happy customers, each one whole -heartily testifying to the effectiveness of the products. . The Empire is well represented too: the design on the label of a bottle of Camp Coffee for example shows a Sikh soldier serving a Gordon Highlander a cup of this coffee substitute from a tray. Subsequent design changes portrays the Indian soldier standing behind but without his tray until finally the two are seen as equals sitting down each with a cup in their hands – ‘Ready aye Ready’ , reads the Scots motto on the label. Graphic designers and social historians can ponder on the merits of these inevitable changes!
From the First World War, through to the roaring twenties and subsequent decades, the influence of the consumer can be seen in an increasingly sophisticated advertising industry. Brands evolve over time and the display of Cadbury’s box of ‘Roses‘ and the packaging for OXO cubes shows the desire to modernise and simplify without loosing their hard won popular brand identity.
A visit to this small and densely packed museum proves to be a walk down memory lane. Depending on your age, the sudden sight of childhood toys and sweets and products bring back floods of memories. It can be an emotional experience and its blend of history, design and life style development means that it has a broad appeal. Take Granny and the kids along and they will all enjoy the visit, its guarantied to spark lively debate and the warm glow of family memories! You will never look at a sweet wrapper in the same way again.
James Cowan

Posted by author: Jim
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6 thoughts on “Jim gets inside packages

  • Bovril produced a book sometime back that is a survey of their advertising from the beginning till the late 20thC. It is sometimes available second hand and fascinating to all those interested in the history of graphic design, branding and cultural theory. There are some parallels with the Camp example and it is fascinating to watch how certain themes develop.

  • I’ve been to this museum and would agree it is a little gem. I went as a work excursion with some other graphic designers. It is an extremely well laid out exhibit for a tiny warren-like space it is in. Incredible details in the packaging can be seen really closely and it can (at times – particularly in the sweets section) be a real trip down memory lane.
    For graphic designers it is an invaluable lesson in branding, how it evolves, refreshes and – most of all – how to preserve the vital ‘essence’ of the brand as it moves through history.
    Design during the war eras is also extremely fascinating and can be inspiring from todays ecological perspective.
    Highly recommend this museum to anyone interested in brands, graphic design or even 20thC society. (Plus there is great ‘retro’ memorabilia in the shop).

  • I’ll look out for this museum, as it looks to be a good source of inspiration. If you want to get out of London to discover another gem, you should try the Land of Lost Content in Craven Arms, Shropshire. http://www.lolc.org.uk/index.html
    More of a philosophical and nostalgic journey into British popular culture over the last century or so, than a formal documentation of it. The displays are quite overwhelming, and on many levels, one begins to ponder our consumption of “stuff”.

  • Ah nostalgia! I am so glad to hear that this museum is still alive. when it left Gloucester I was told it had closed and I hadnt seen it. So thanks Jim.
    Robert Opies parents had a fantastic collection of early childrens books and wrote about them Itis now in the Bodleian library. sunny Jim and Camp coffee here I come.[It was horrible.]

  • I’ve added this museum to my list of places to visit next time I’m in London.
    Clearing out my mum’s loft recently, I discovered all kinds of things with vintage branding,such as biscuit tins and 1950s perfume bottles, and realised that they can be interesting objects to put into a still-life painting.
    If you like vintage ‘stuff’, another fascinating place to visit is Eastbourne’s Museum of Shops.

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