Robert Opie: Consumer Historian & the Patron Saint of the Pack Age.
Updated: Oct 19, 2022
Robert Opie in the Museum of Brands. Image copyright of Design Week: https://www.designweek.co.uk/issues/30-march-5-april-2015/we-display-the-things-that-everyone-else-chucks-out-robert-opies-museum-of-brands-and-packaging/
‘I was struck by the idea that I should save the packaging which would otherwise surely disappear forever. The collection offers evidence of a dynamic commercial system that delivers thousands of desirable items from all corners of the world. It is a feat arguably more complex than sending man to the Moon, but one still taken for granted’. Inverness Train Station, Scotland - 6th of September, 1963. A young man stands in front of a vending machine. He puts in his money, makes a selection and retrieves a bar of chocolate from the tray and puts it in his coat pocket. Shortly thereafter he and father get on a train bound for Edinburgh.
Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh, Scotland - 6th of September, 1963. The curator leans forward, fishing an object from the glass showcase. In his hand, was a bar of Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate. You could tell just by looking at it that it was old - Cadbury’s chocolate did not look like that now. The design was different. The young man is informed that the packaging is from the 1930’s. “It’s rather amazing,” the curator says. “It’s unopened. It’s still full. Holding this, you can experience actually feeling a bar of chocolate from the 1930s.” On the train back to the highlands, the sixteen-year-old teenager feels a pang of hunger. Time for a snack. He puts his hand into his pocket and pulls out the vending machine bootie that he procured earlier in the day. Placing it next to a pack of McVities & Price’s Ginger Nuts, the post-box red packaging catches his eye in a particular way that seems different and novel. The fluted white letters stand out; curiously, they seem to convey more than the brand name alone. Munchies, to be sure, but also something else, something ineffable.
Then a thought occurs to him. In a hypothetical future, could this pack of Munchies transmogrify into a cultural artifact and bear a similar prestige to the Cadbury’s chocolate that he had seen earlier in the museum? Surely, all things being equal, it was entirely possible that it could. And so it was, at this precise point in time, the young man (whose name was Robert Opie) decided to become the collector of consumer packaging. The patron saint of the ‘pack age’, was born - if not yet wholly canonized.
Munchies packaging, 1963 -The Confectionery that started it all. Image Copyright - The Museum of Brands.
Collecting and cataloging came naturally to Robert. It was in his blood. His parents were long-time collectors of children’s literature; the library-cum-museum ecology of his childhood home was the rich substrate from which a burgeoning passion for collecting took root. ‘I came from a family where collecting was not only encouraged but expected,’ he told the Guardian in 2016. ‘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.’[2.] There were myriad conversations to be had in the Opie household on the philosophy and purpose of collecting. Topics such as how to research and catalog items, how to place them in historical context, and how to optimally preserve them were commonplace.
An ancillary passion (he often states that he dislikes the word ‘obsession’) was an innate appreciation for graphic design and the illustrative arts; his sensitivity for pattern and color was actuated by an appreciative study of postage stamps. He saw them as works of art in miniature. Instinctually, he sensed that the world of philately was possibly too immense of an ocean in which to paddle; as an oversubscribed field of endeavor, it would be virtually impossible to make a mark for himself therein. What he sought was a niche concern; an area that had been overlooked and remained unresearched, yet one that could still be of genuine interest to the public.
Unlike postage stamps, consumer packaging enters our world and is promptly destined thereafter to leave it. Once a chocolate bar’s outer habiliment is torn open, once its contents are consumed, it is discarded - consigned to obscurity, delegated to a trash can, and eventually to a gargantuan hole in the ground. By collecting and preserving this detritus, Robert began to sense that he was, in actual fact, safeguarding an essential part of our collective identity. By 1975, he had assembled a collection large enough to sufficiently satiate an impactful, metropolitan exhibition. It was in the December of that year, that the Victoria and Albert Museum in London presented his collection to the public for the very first time. The exhibition was entitled ‘The Pack Age: A Century of Wrapping it Up’. Robert had an a priori sense, a feeling that it was going to be a success - and he was right. It proved to be enormously popular. Indeed, the overwhelming volume of foot traffic was such that the museum (for the first time in its 100-year-plus history) had to close its doors to the public in order to prevent excess capacity. In 1984 Robert established the Museum of Advertising and Packaging in Gloucester, where some 14,000 items from his collection went on permanent display to the public. In 2002, the museum became a registered charity. Three years later it relocated to the capital. For a decade, all was well. However, the ever-expanding nature of the collection necessitated yet another move in 2015, to a larger building close by. It was at this juncture that the Opie collection was rechristened as The Museum of Brands. Robert believes that it is the term ‘commercial’ that is largely to blame for the low-brow perception that clings, remora-like, to his area of expertise. He posits that the word sullies and denigrates all that it touches (and has done so since the beginning of what he calls the ‘pack age’- the mid-Victorian period, some one hundred and fifty years ago, when consumer culture began to flourish.) He describes the tenor of ‘the commercial’ in society by using the doors of a nineteenth house as an analogy. Facing the street is the front door - a place on whose step polite society is ‘received.’ Then around the back of the house, often along a back alley, is the tradesman’s entrance, a diminutive portal that preoccupies itself with commercial dealings, out of sight and largely out of mind.
The realm of the commercial springs from a rhizome of commerce and money - and all too often, the concept of mammon. It is the embodiment of the temporal world and therefore (presumably) the antithesis of anything spiritual or pure. In the nineteenth century, the notion of commerce was besmirched by a myriad of snake-oil salesmen vying for business alongside legitimate tradespeople. As such, making a living was not synonymous with making an honest one.
Nowhere was this disparagement of the commercial more evident than in the visual arts. Illustrators and printers who whiled away their days embellishing consumer goods were considered, somewhat pejoratively, as ‘commercial’ artists, artisans who specialized in the decorative and the superficial (unlike fine artists, whose inner-driven purpose was to explore, inform, and edify.) In an effort to slough off the weight of the c-word, commercial artists in the early 1960s began to adopt a new nomenclature for their profession. Renowned graphic designer, Mike Dempsey recalls: ‘I think the change of name occurred because the ‘commercial’ aspect of the original description was deemed rather downmarket – certainly less refined than the more continental description, where the [term] graphic designer was not only more respected but also seen in a more serious and cerebral light.’[3.] Robert Opie’s genius lies in the way he has been able to wrest the history of commercial packaging away from being merely memory lane memorabilia and reemploy it into novel, contemporary realms of service. Brand loyalties that are cemented in early on in life can reanimate memories well into one’s third age. Gerontologists and care workers have begun working with the Museum of Brands, using their inventory as a clinical tool. Robert’s books (he has published over 20 titles) are routinely being purchased in the museum gift shop and online by the children of elderly parents afflicted with neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's. Outmoded motifs and taglines are now being pressed into service within the specialized field of ‘reminiscence therapy;’ long-forgotten memories surface, assuaging conversation with individuals affected by a cognitive deficit. Another recent development, likely nudged along by Robert's stalwart influence, is that of the corporate branding archive. Established brands within the UK such as Sainsbury's and the John Lewis Partnership have directed considerable capital into shoring up the historical archives that delineate their brand histories. Certain Heritage brands in the US (such as Hershey) are also beginning to follow suit. Marketing departments are finally beginning to appreciate the wisdom in the adage, to wit: that to understand where you are now, you need to understand where you have come from.
The value of packaging as causal hotkeys within the octave of history is something that is not fully understood - even by Opie himself. However, on an individual level, I sense that these items liken temporal rhinestones, bejewelling our lives, acting as direct conduits to times long past, replete with meaning and concomitant emotion. I, for one, remember Mackintosh’s Munchies distinctly - the dense mouthfeel, the competing textures of caramel and biscuit. I also recall you could fit a packet easily into the pocket of your jeans. Sure, they would stick out at an angle, but at least they did not get squashed. I would unwind the wrapper, tearing the paper down, square by delicious square, until it became a bright red, spiraling ringlet. By the late 1970s (my chocolate-consuming zenith), the packaging design was a little different, but it was still made by Macintosh - Nestlé got in on the action further on down the line, in 1988.
Unlike Robert, I never possessed the nous to put a packet of them by - you know, just because… But then, none of us ever one did, did we?
Munchies package design, early 1980s. Image: http://www.chocolatewrappers.info/Sevropa/Rowntree/rowntree3.htm