Memories are made of this

Robert Opie collects the parts of visual culture we throw away, a hero on a one-man quest

The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill houses one of London’s truly unique collections. More than 12,000 artefacts of British throwaway culture, from the earliest examples to the present day, are displayed in vitrines labelled by decade, each one containing hundreds of perfectly preserved boxes and wrappers. Something strange happens when you see the products of our visual culture arranged in this way: it makes the passage of time, a process which is invisible, visible. You can see arts and crafts fade into art deco, wartime olive drab give way to groovy orange and brown, and watch as unabashed confidence is overwhelmed by irony. This, in itself, is fascinating, but it becomes something closer to magical when you come face to face with objects from your own childhood.

For me, it was the Matey bubble bath bottle: I was struck dumb by nostalgia, as acute as any encounter with an old photograph or toy. More so, perhaps, because whereas I know my one-time favourite teddy bear, Thomas, is at my sister’s house, available for inspection pending the permission of my nephew, the original 1985 Matey bubble bath bottle, with its characteristic sailor’s-cap lid, wasn’t something I’d anticipated ever encountering again. Seeing it wasn’t just like seeing an old friend, but a friend whom I’d always assumed was lost for good. Maybe that sounds dramatic, but trust me, the sensation was, too.

We have one man to thank for the existence of this magnificent hoard. Robert Opie has been collecting since childhood. He began, as many children do, with stamps and Matchbox cars. His hobby was encouraged by his parents, the folklorists Iona and Peter Opie, who had themselves amassed a library of children’s literature running to some 20,000 pieces. With his collection begun, a chance find of some 1930s milk bottles inspired Opie to extend it to include objects from prior to his birth. We might think of disposable packaging as a modern phenomenon, yet here we can see Twining’s tea from the 18th century, or Oxo’s earliest incarnation as Liebig’s stock cubes from the 19th.

To celebrate a half-century of collecting, Opie has made a documentary, In Search of Our Throwaway History. Two hours long and three years in the making, it displays the same carefully-organised, systematic tendency as the museum. Each chapter deals with a different category of products, for instance ‘slimming’ or ‘ice creams and lollies’. This allows Opie to showcase a sizeable proportion of his collection, and engage with the cultural context that produced them. As he points out, since so many aspects of culture – artwork, writing, materials – coalesce in consumer packaging, each object has a unique story to tell. So we discover that buyers began to prefer prepackaged tea as much for the reassurance it offered against adulteration as for its convenience. And that tins issued during and after the Second World War are recognisable because their labels have shrunk to mere strips, in order to preserve paper for the war effort.

Perhaps a survey of packaging through the ages will always tend toward breadth rather than depth. But while the film delivers on detail, it lacks an overarching narrative. The incredible persistence of some brands is revealed, but we don’t get any clear idea as to why, or what the meaning of their persistence as a phenomenon in human culture might be. At its outset Opie promises us a journey, but if so, it’s a sentimental rather than an intellectual one. It would have been legitimate to seek interviews with other historians, anthropologists, or designers. Instead we get talking heads from the great British public, discoursing on their own experience of Golden Nuggets, Aqua Manda and single serving pies. This, along with the galaxies of waltzing ice lollies, accompanying piano music and Opie’s gently modulated voiceover can sometimes make In Search of Our Throwaway History itself seem like an artefact from another time. But then, perhaps we should consider that the film’s idiosyncrasies aren’t just part of its charm, they’re essential qualities of its maker. There are many documentarians who could have made a more conventional piece. But none of those people would have bothered to collect tens of thousands of examples of consumer packaging, for the good of future generations.

I think we should relish Opie’s perversity. Essentially, when it comes to the passage of time, he’s a radical refusenik. It is the act of discarding packaging that sets the tempo for all popular culture, it’s the rhythm that capitalism works to. Things have to be thrown away, for new things to take their place. By keeping these objects Opie is doing precisely the opposite of what their manufacturers intended, indeed what all the indoctrination of modern advertising is telling him to do. This stuff is genuinely valuable, it’s worthy of preservation for its emotional charge alone and yet no one else is looking after it. Opie has created the most complete archive in existence, it’s a life’s work, and a vocation. In the DVD extras he frets about the few missing pieces, the ones that got away: an unopened tin of SPAM from the period of the Second World War: “It must be out there somewhere,” he despairs.

Since my office is very close to the museum, my review copy of the DVD was delivered by hand, by Opie himself. I told him about my job, and we enjoyed an interesting conversation about branding and advertising. On the way out, we passed the recycling bin. “Oh,” he said, “is that being thrown away?” It took me a moment to work out that he meant a discarded box of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. I assured him he was free to take it. He looked relieved. “This is what I love you see: the energy.” There’s something heroic about this one-man quest to preserve, not the past, but the present. Even if it is slipping away much faster than he could ever hope to collect it.

‘Gordon Comstock’ is a creative director based in London. He tweets at @notvoodoo.

In Search of Our Throwaway History is available on DVD (£14.95) from The Museum of Brands, 2 Colville Mews, Lonsdale Road, London W11 2AR and Produced/directed by Simon J Frith. Written by Robert Opie and Jim Cogan

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