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Inspiring spaces: The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising

29 July 2011

“You are the product. You feeling something: that’s what sells” (Don Draper, Mad Men).

Advertising is about feelings, emotions: the inducing of sentiments which leads us into a story we can almost make our own. A trip to the Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising is something of an emotional dive; not only into your own past, but into pasts that have evaded your lifetime. Yet the effects of advertising and branding do not change: advertising introduces us to the lives of others; their hopes, dreams and happiness. It persuades us for one striking moment that the images we see in colourful, striking print are not only attainable and oh-so-desirable, but hopelessly necessary. In the thrill of the moment one is no longer looking at a mere Cadbury’s flake, but the life of the Cadbury’s Girl: and her life is wonderful. The Flake is sold.
 
I first visited the museum not long after it opened in 2005. As a bored and, slightly stroppy teenager, it had been quite a feat for my mother to get me there in the first place. Yet here was a museum that has fascinated me ever since. History can often seem grainy and irrelevant, yet as I was exposed to bars of chocolate, yoghurt and butter, wrapped in packaging from decades past, whole lifetimes clawed back into existence, screaming nostalgia. 

As you walk through the Museum’s displays, history stretches out behind you in a mass of increasingly fading colour. The institution is the brainchild of social historian Robert Opie, who started the collection at the age of 16 with a packet of Munchies, after becoming disenchanted with society’s disregard of everyday objects. Today, it is home to every imaginable household product created since branding was conceived.
 
Through these products, the museum showcases the everyday lives of generation past. The collection begins in the Victorian age, before creeping into the present when mass advertising began to pervade our day-to-day lives. Victorian leisure pursuits, the arrival of then revolutionary technologies: the first radio, television sets hidden behind ornate wooden panelled doors. 1930’s Art Deco creeps into the war-ridden forties, before the colour and intensity of the rock’n’roll fifties and swinging Sixties arrive. History is carved out through 1970’s platform shoes which make modern-day stilettos look like a walk in the park. 

It may seem strange that in a society where you cannot leave you house without being confronted by consumerism, a place like this provides me with space to think. The packaging on display here provides something of an escape; the advertising overwhelms you, whole lifetimes stand open before you, offering an emotive transformation into a past we can almost touch. Two hundred years of personal stories: family life, poverty, sexism and rock n’ roll, lay waiting to be unravelled. This is escapism at its most powerful. 

The question of what will come next is carved from an evocation of the past that both excites and informs. History has rarely been so stimulating and enlightening. What’s more, the museum, like its artefacts, never stands still. The place has grown with me, adding relics of my past into its depths. Here lies an amalgamation of history that can be yours for a day yet is at once utterly unobtainable.

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