The Guardian March 2016
Robert Opie, founder of the Museum of Brands, in Notting Hill, west London. Photograph: Teri Pengilley for the Guardian
'A portal into our past': museum showcases history of brands.
Collection of more than 500,000 items including paper cups, jamjars and soap boxes moves to new west London home
Despite his lunchtime tour of local pound shops, and a pause on the way back to retrieve a particularly interesting paper cup from a bin, Robert Opie insists he is a social historian, not an obsessed collector.
His Museum of Brands – a display of more than 12,000 boxes, cartons, tins, bottles, jars, packets, posters, games, toys and an art deco electric fire in the shape of a Scottie dog – has just found its third, and he hopes final, home just off Ladbroke Grove in west London.
“It’s a portal into your own past,” says Opie, explaining how it fascinates older people recognising the tea packages, soap boxes and jam labels of their youth, while teenagers are astonished to discover their own pocket money sweets are already museum pieces. “People immediately make the link between these objects and the key moments in their own lives. Very few places can do that.”
The displays can house only a fraction of the collection he has built since he was a teenager, which runs to more than 500,000 items. Most of it is in expensive storage and remorselessly growing: paper cups, the kind piled up on fast food counters, are a new category, while the pound shops are a regular source of familiar brands in gaudy new packages.
The cases in the museum are still being filled – a wall has been reserved for all things Barbie – but the doors are already open. Visitors spend hours poring over relics of late 19th and early 20th century consumerism.
One advert shows a pair of elegant corseted Edwardian ladies gazing rapturously at a wall light, with one exclaiming: “Look at my Electric Wiring!” Cigarette adverts show garlands of flowers and beautiful women for many decades before the first ominous health warnings appear.
As we move into the war years the colours dim on the packages, which now carry warnings to save every scrap of paper and tin. The exhibits chart when kings were crowned and princes married: the ill-fated union of Charles and Diana, for example, is celebrated on a matchbox.
The union flag adorns everything from a packet of Andrex tissues to a Ginster’s chicken and mushroom pie wrapper to celebrate the glorious collision of the London Olympics and the Queen’s jubilee: “It was a wonderful mad moment,” says Opie fondly.
The collection began after Opie found himself hungry during an overnight stay in Inverness on a Sunday in the 1960s. All shops were closed, except for the station store, where he bough a packet of ginger nut biscuits and some Mackintosh’s chocolate caramel Munchies. He looked at the yellow and red wrappers and believed he held history in his hands; opening them so carefully that 53 years later they are still immaculate, and on display in the museum.
Collecting runs in the family. His parents, Peter and Iona Opie, built the greatest private collection of children’s books and literature. It is now part of the mighty Bodleian library in Oxford. They were not surprised when their son revealed his curious new hobby, soon expanding to shoe polish tins, soap powder packets, cereal boxes and coffee jars. “I came from a family where collecting was not only encouraged but expected,” Opie says. “When I was much younger and keeping my Lesney Matchbox cars in their boxes, it was my father who said that I should annotate them with the date and price.”
After funding his collection through years of working in market research, Opie found the museum’s first home in an old warehouse in Gloucester Docks in 1984. The collection then moved to Notting Hill in west London and now to a handsome ground floor space in a commercial block nearby, with a beautiful jungly courtyard garden left by the former tenants, the Terrence Higgins Trust.
No visitor would know it, but the collection is not comprehensive. Opie has been searching for decades but has never found the original straight-sided Marmite jar, or the very first UK packet of Coco Pops. They are out there, he knows it, and one day he will find them.
Written by Maev Kennedy