One Museum Director on Why He Collects Objects from the Past

Museum of Brands founder Robert Opie. Image courtesy Museum of Brands.

In what he describes as today’s “throwaway society,” one museum director discusses the art of saving (and savoring) objects from the past.

The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, a veritable archive of past consumer design, is a stalwart presence among Britain’s network of independent museums. Today, visitors can find over 12,000 objects on view, including Quaker Oats and Kellogg’s cereal boxes, Brillo Pads from the 1930s, and a 1970s Chopper Bike. The museum opened in Gloucester in 1984 and moved to London 20 years later. In 2016, it moved into more sizable premises near Portobello Road, a part of London known and loved by collectors and dealers alike.

The Consumer’s Curator

Founder and director Robert Opie, sometimes referred to as the “supermarket archaeologist,” was stunned by a revelation that would lead him to set up the museum in 1963 when he was just sixteen years old. That same year he acquired the first item in his collection: a packet of Munchies from a vending machine in Inverness. “To me,” says Opie, “the most exciting things are those that have been mass-produced in their millions. Most people think ‘why keep it? It’s so mundane.’” But Opie’s museum, loved by nostalgists and designers alike, demonstrates that branding and packaging, in its rich, colorful, eye-catching diversity, is constantly evolving and is anything but mundane.

Branding on display at the Museum of Brands.

Opie’s attraction to branding began with the graphics on postage stamps. “They’re wonderful things. I learned a lot about design [from postage stamps], because stamps are brilliant pieces of miniature art.” But eventually, it became a question of competitive edge. “In the philatelic world, I knew there were thousands upon thousands of people who would have better collections than I could ever achieve, and so what would be the point in doing that? I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to create a subject that most people weren’t researching, but that everybody would be interested in.”

Family Affair

When asked about how he began collecting himself, Opie recalls his early childhood. “I grew up in a family of collectors, so it was in the atmosphere. I was surprised to find that other children didn’t have a little museum in their homes.” As he grew up, he and his father had endless discussions about how and why to collect, how to research an item, and how to make sense of the story that each object told.

The snack that inspired Robert Opie’s passion for collecting.

It was after a visit to the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh as a teenager with his father (a collector of early children’s literature himself) that Opie experienced the revelation that would lead him to set up his own museum. “The curator took a bar of Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate out of one of the cases. I remember him saying how amazing it was because it was still full; you had the experience of actually feeling a bar of chocolate from the 1930s.” On his journey from Edinburgh, Opie sated his hunger with a packet of McVities & Price’s Ginger Nuts and the aforementioned packet of Munchies. While savoring his snacks, he realized that he should be saving items before they were lost to the annals of time. “By sixteen, I’d done my ten years of apprenticeship in collecting with my father. I knew to keep the packet; take the toy out, put a date on the box, and gather other material around it… I was the right person, in the right place, to begin something that nobody else had done before.”

Treasure Hunting

When Opie left school, he began his career working in market research so that he could “study the history backwards.” Rather than simply keeping the packaging from items he had consumed, he began what he refers to as “treasure hunting,” or looking for objects that were being thrown away elsewhere. He recalls a trip to the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens, which was being drained for the first time in 30 years. He didn’t find any sunken boats, but he was delighted with his haul: six old milk bottles hidden amid the mud flats.

Assorted historical brands. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Opie began treasure hunting in earnest, making regular trips to Portobello Road and Camden Passage where early packaging was often sold as a curiosity, rather than a collector’s item. “I can still remember the excitement. It was like a new country: a place where nobody had been, discovering animals you’d never seen before. But it was also immediate, close, and yet it had gone undiscovered for so long.”

A precocious Opie then presented a talk to the Royal Philatelic Society, called A Load of Rubbish, in which he equated stamps to other seemingly disposable objects. He compared varieties of Heinz Baked Beans labels with varieties of stamps, demonstrating that each was interesting in its own right, and equally part of what he refers to as a ‘throwaway society.’ “It just so happens that people save stamps and collect them; why shouldn’t it be the same for bean labels?”

Transcending Generations

When describing the visitor experience at the Museum of Brands, Opie speaks of the astonishment and nostalgia that many people feel at the longevity of brands like Rolos, KitKat, and Mars Bars, which all date back to the 1930s. “It’s particularly touching when it crosses generations. If three generations of the same family come into the museum, a granny might start by holding court about her memories of the 50s. And then when it gets to the children’s turn, they’re looking at things that their parents and grandparents don’t understand. It opens up opportunities to hear personal stories of the past, and gives a more rounded understanding of a person beyond births, marriages, and deaths. I find that much more exciting than watching somebody go around the National Gallery. A Stubbs painting may be amazing, but it doesn’t have the same personal resonance.”

He says that many household brands have seemingly become a part of the family. “A lot of these brands are so much a part of our lives that we want to know something about them. Each has a relevance to a person as part of their own roots. You discover you’ve got a cousin, you want to know about them. Brands too are like friends to us: we rely upon them. When you go home after a hard day’s work, you want a drink of something, or a sweet, or chocolate. Whatever your pick-me-up may be, it becomes a part of your close circle, part of your comfort zone.”

To conclude, he quotes the poet John Betjeman, “‘Once you understand the past, the confusion of the present becomes clearer,’ and he’s right,” says Opie. “The more you can see how stories have come about, the more meaningful life is today, and that’s what’s special about what I show here.”


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