London is full of fun and Summer Games this month, but the enlightened ad aficionado shouldn’t miss the treasure trove of the planet’s marketing ephemera hidden beneath the Olympic glitz
Let’s say you want to feel the national psyche. Viscerally feel it as opposed to rationally deconstruct it. Let’s say the nation is England, which has reached this point between the Jubilee and Olympics, and which claims to no longer to know itself, yet still somehow wields more pull on our own national psyche than any clear-thinking Canadian wants to admit.
Also, let’s say you only have 45 minutes to get this visceral feeling. So focus groups and phone surveys—all the usual methods—are out of the question. You don’t have time to read the current Granta. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake might give you the illusion of having endured the glory and tragedy and monotony of the past century—for reasons you can’t explain, you’ll find yourself using words like bloke and geeza as you ruin otherwise good tea with milk—but you still don’t quite feel England so much as the shake.
What you must do instead is take London’s Central Underground line to Notting Hill Gate and walk past Portobello Road, until the streets become labyrinthine, at which point you’ll find 2 Colville Mews, which has been described as a “product-placement time tunnel” that connects the Victorian era to the five-ring Diamond Jubilee vibrator that is 2012.
The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising (MuseumOfBrands.com) is a repository of tubs, tubes, tins, boxes, bottles, wrappers, packets, posters, caps, flagons and forgotten inventions, each a little piece of art; each a mystery. Laid out in their entirety, the 12,000 original objects feel like a police investigation that spans the ages. “I need to see it all out there so I can make the connections between things,” says Robert Opie, the collection’s curator. (Could there be a more appropriate name than Opie?) He began saving these objects at the age of 16.
His collection, now billed as the world’s only comprehensive brand heritage collection, is ubiquitously referred to as “eccentric.” Post-Pinterest, it might seem less impressive than when people queued down the block in 1975 to get their first glimpse at the Victoria and Albert Museum. (Who could have known that “Keep Calm Carry On” would be reduced to a meme?) If you read interviews with Opie, he references again and again the buzz and physical joy of encountering everyday objects.
This emotion is often exaggerated. But at his museum you feel it like you can’t online. Two world wars, the Depression and
recessions. (The decades of Guinness ads leave you with the sense of a dull, multi-generation hangover.) And as much as you come to feel the blitz, you also come to feel, on your skin, how the traditional block soap used for washing clothes fell to the day’s emerging soap brands like Persil and Rinso. (As the 19th Century turned into the 20th, a brand was created simply by adding an ‘O’—Oxo, Glaxo, Brasso, Rinso.) The brands evoke the angst of Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwells’s Road to Wigan Pier, the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” decimalization, postal strikes, oil crises, global communication, the rise and fall of the Iron Curtain, the disappearance of an ozone layer, weddings, coronations, all the jubilees—the utter triviality of this great civilization—juxtaposed against technologies ranging from flight to television to Oxo and Rubik’s cubes. An earnest culture grappling with the tremendous velocity of time itself. In those 150 years, consumer society became society.
While a short tube ride away, just across the Thames, a large room at the Tate Modern’s Damien Hirst exhibition—literally the hottest modern art show in the world right now—similarly recreates the banal details of a 1990s pharmacy. The space is covered with wall-to-wall medicine cabinets, stocked with empty pill packaging. Hirst explains: “I went to the chemist’s and thought, ‘I wish I could make art like that.’ Then I realized I could have it as it was.” Hirst claims that his “Pharmacy” is about the collapse of a civilization. “Something falling apart as it builds up.” Careful to add: “But if you walk in and think it’s a chemist’s shop, that’s fine by me.”
And while Mad Men might do for copywriters what Top Gun did for F-14 pilots—over-romanticize the calling and the time—it’s these banal collections that reconstitute the worlds and people left behind. Earlier this spring, the Barbican in East London hosted 10,000 items representing five decades of clutter amassed by Zhao Xiangyan, mother of the Chinese artist Song Dong. Their exhibition is named after the Chinese adage wu jin qi yong: “nothing can be wasted, every item must be used to its maximum potential.” This is Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Look upon our twist-off Pimm’s caps and despair.
Chris Koentges is a writer based in Vancouver. His work has appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve and Reader’s Digest.