London West, UK - Approaching the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill set me up for a surprise. The building itself is quite unique, yet somehow the greater setting brings low expectations. The adjacent Ladbroke Grove buzzes with activity while this overlooked side street feels quiet. Like a pub on an empty block, I prepared to be underwhelmed. As I entered the deserted entryway midday last Tuesday, I suspected the regular adult £9 entry fee would prove a hustle.
I was wrong. Truth be told, I enjoyed this specialty museum far more than larger and more iconic London institutions. The Brand Museum is simply fascinating.
The bulk of the exhibition lies in the serpentine Time Tunnel, a winding dark corridor flanked by glass displays containing thousands of branded products beginning in the Victorian era and extending to modern times. Subtle placards note the decade and context of the displays, but the items mainly speak for themselves.
The story told is no less than the history of Britain. The ability of products to set the character of an age is powerful. I was spellbound after turning the first corner. With so much to see my movement immediately slowed to a crawl. The sheer amount of artifacts packed in, combined with their artful display, was astounding.
Though we may not always realize it, branding concepts are integral to the style of most products. An era's philosophy underpins every brand. An item's aura expresses a generation's worldview.
The Brand Museum's intense concentration of objects amplifies that effect. I was transfixed by the UK's imperial essence in the section on Wembley's 1924 British Empire Exhibition. I sensed the exhilaration of the nation's children when legendary candy brands exploded onto the market with an endless variety of flavors and packaging. The classic atmosphere oozing from furniture-size radios conjured the cozy feel of living rooms untouched by the age of television.
Of course history has its share of ugliness we are not eager to resurrect. War propaganda, the sometimes outdated depiction of women and the general absence of non-white faces in older advertising keeps us from fully romanticizing the past. The nice thing about decorating with salvage and antiques is you can pick and choose your own pieces of history.
As I walked I wondered what it might feel like to be closely surrounded by only modern products. Would it feel so different? A walk through a typical grocery store today feels much the same as it did 50 years ago. Indeed I was amused to see how various condiments and soda cans have barely changed design over the decades.
But our appliances have evolved dramatically. With home electronics today function supersedes style. TV's have become little more than screens. Speakers are no larger than necessary. Where possible, artifacts like DVD's, records and books have disappeared altogether only to replaced by all encompassing digital devices. Notable exceptions include Beats headphones and Apple computers. Otherwise a walk through a 2017 Time Tunnel might feel a little barren. What does that say about modern culture that much of it is only perceivable through a digital device?
Perhaps it was no coincidence that as the exhibit reached the 80's and 90's it began to lose its charm. The quality of the displays did not deteriorate, they simply became familiar and therefore less alluring. I suppose it is harder to romanticize a time I have actually lived through. That is probably just me. I imagine many would feel the opposite.
In the end I was struck by how long this mysterious tunnel was, given the size of the building. As I emerged I realized its time warping effects were all too real. The journey had taken much longer than expected, nearly two hours. I could have easily stayed longer.
Meanwhile the rest of the museum had come alive with activity. The cafe interior was packed. The front desk was now bustling. It was nice to see the place is appreciated. But even though it gets high marks on Trip Advisor, I guarantee the Brand Museum is highly underrated.