Sunday, September 7, 2014

'Ten Thousand Memories': The Larders That Time Forgot

The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising may sound like a somewhat niche excursion for marketing geeks (myself included).

But this curious little museum in Notting Hill has something for everyone. With over 10,000 products from bygone eras, it is an unashamedly nostalgic, cluttered and garish celebration of British eccentricity and culture - from Victorian royalist tat and wartime humour, to the brash jingles and supermarkets of the 1950s. It even charts the controversial evolution of Opal Fruits to Starburst, and Marathon to Snickers, from which the nation is still reeling.

The museum is the brainchild and personal collection of a self-confessed hoarder, Robert Opie. I'm told that the compulsive collector was eating a packet of Munchies on a train platform, and rather than throw the packet away, he decided to keep it as a souvenir of the time. The rest is, quite literally, history.

Tucked away in the cobbled Colville Mews next to the Temperley boutique (aptly painted as a Union Jack), the collection is built around a time tunnel; a vivid kaleidoscope of toys, groceries, posters, and fashion through the twentieth century and up to present day.

Each display is a time capsule, a window into the minutiae of life in a different decade. Walking through it, in chronological order, is to witness the gradual, relentless passage of time. Don't be fooled by the day-to-day subject matter: the packaging of our household favourites tells the story of two world wars, new discoveries, the Industrial Revolution, mass consumerism and the gradual emancipation of women.

In one hour, as you peer into the larders that time forgot, you will experience the journey our grandparents went on during the course of their lives - told through the changing contents of their cupboards.

After the austerity of World War I, for example, you begin to see the frivolity and prosperity return in the products that were being consumed. Shorter skirts, jazz records, miniature bottles of spirits, cars. As everyone tried to forget the horrors that had passed and the millions of boys who never returned, England had just got back onto its feet and was enjoying life once more - only - unthinkably - to be thrown back into War again in 1939. Suddenly, the larders once more look austere and rationed. You can imagine the disbelief that it could all be happening again.

With all this unrest, it is hardly surprising that the wartime generations looked back with rose-tinted glasses on the stable, patriotic naivety of Victorian era. The same generations might also be baffled to know why on earth we, in the 21st century, delight so much in Blitz Parties and wartime-themed speakeasies.

I begin to realise that nostalgia is all relative. It's funny to think that everything here, so quaint and vintage looking under our gaze, was once modern and cutting edge. I experience the sudden bolt of recognition as I enter the 1990s room, 'my' decade, and locate my place in history - and the depressing fact that my childhood memories are now retro.

My time capsule is characterised by Space Raiders crisps, dinosaur-shaped turkey nuggets, Spice Girls Easter Eggs and Captain Planet doughnuts (childhood obesity was clearly not a concern in those days...). These *ahem* super-healthy groceries all felt completely unremarkable at the time,  and we'd have laughed at the idea they'd end up in a museum. But here they are, tugging on my heartstrings, and I'm immediately catapulted back to 1996, when I'd beg my mum to put these in the trolley and spend all my pocket money on Spice Girls singles. I can't help but wonder whether people will one day look back on our iPhones, Instagram profiles, Starbucks cups and Miley Cyrus videos and think, 'Ah, how quaint - the good old days'.

Some items in the museum take on new meaning or uncomfortable irony, with the advantage of hindsight - for example a poignant 'Mork and Mindy' book featuring a young Robin Williams, the chilling 'Jim'll Fix It' merchandise from the 1970s, and a wartime board game entitled 'Listen In'. Ah, phone-hacking fun for the whole family! How lovely.

At other times during our trip down memory lane, it feels as though history is repeating itself. The patriotic souvenirs from the London 1948 Olympics and the Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth are remarkably similar to what was on sale during the summer of 2012, when we reveled in the optimism of the Olympics and the Jubilee. We LOVED all the tat, precisely because it harked back to what we imagine to be a simpler, happier time.

The visit must have been a baffling experience for my Californian companion, who hadn't grown up with these brands - but what better cultural induction to Britain than through the changing faces of Dairy Milk, Corn Flakes, Oxo Cubes and even the Queen? Seeing these ubiquitous items in their former lives is like seeing photos of your grandparents as teenagers. The outside wrappers of these national treasures may have evolved along with our rapidly changing society, but the products inside span generations and are omnipresent, constant reminders of our national identity.  Kind of like the Queen herself.

The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising: 2 Colville Mews, Notting Hill,, entry £6.50 for adults

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