The ultimate package tour

The Pillman family visits the Museum of Advertising and Packaging in Gloucester
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The Independent Travel
In an age of superstores, self-scanning check-outs, convenience meals and throw away cartons, who has time for packaging? Thank goodness Robert Opie had the foresight to hoard such trivia as yoghurt pots and custard tins from an early age. A mere 10 per cent of his collection, rumoured to consist of 300,000 items, is on show in the Museum of Advertising and Packaging in the lively area of Gloucester Docks.

Colourful, intriguing, entertaining and nostalgic, this museum feels like home. Windows are crammed with soups, biscuits, sweets, toothpaste, tea, coffee, jams, cereals, drinks, cleaning products.

The collection effectively traces the history of shopping, and what this says about us. As the century progresses so graphic design and pack technology, marketing and advertising develop, stimulated by increasing competition and consumer expectation. The museum lays bare the history of our domestic lives and is also a cheerful celebration of logos and slogans.

The visitors

Briony Pillman, a graphic artist and proprietor of Cherry Tree Designs, took her daughters, Katie, 11, and Harriet, nine. They were accompanied by their grandmother, Avril Lethbridge, a writer and producer.

Harriet: This was a really brilliant way of learning. It was more fun coming with Mummy and Granny. They could tell us what they remembered and how things had changed, and they noticed change just as much as us. I remember the yoghurt pots with feet from when I was small.

I liked the special biscuit tins in the shape of trains, boats and books. I liked looking at all the different designs and packets, but I also liked seeing the old machines, like the ugly old fridge and the mangle like the one at Katie's school. I would like to have a cash register like the ones here.

Katie: I really enjoyed myself. We've been doing packaging at school this term, so it was interesting to see so much. I preferred the earlier posters and packets which were prettier, very detailed and less colourful. Modern packaging may not look as pretty as this, but it's brighter, fresher, more hygienic and more appetising.

I discovered Granny was born the same year as the Mars bar. It was good to have her with us because she remembered so much and could answer our questions, particularly about the war years. She told us that powdered egg tasted disgusting; she explained some of the posters to us, like the ones saying "Talk to a friend, you may be talking to the enemy". She had even worn a gas mask. I can't believe she really lived through the war.

I loved the chocolate boxes. Some were really decorative and beautiful; made of wood or hard cardboard, they were covered in velvet in deep colours and decorated with elaborate metal handles and clasps. If I had been given one I would have wanted to keep it for ever.

Briony: The museum had a very nice atmosphere. It is brilliant for children and adults. It gave all of us a feel for history as well as art and design. I liked the way it was shown in decades at the beginning, so you could get a feel for the time, the way people lived and thought: from the elegant Victorian era to the bleak war years to the first pre-prepared meals of the Sixties and the gradual development of skin and hair care products, into the Nineties. It was fun to follow certain products through, like the small packet of soap suds which was eventually replaced by the giant- sized Persil we know today.

It was intriguing to see just how important the initial image is - and was. Such things as the shape of the Bovril jar, the logo for Oxo, Heinz, Libby's. All these reinforce the image that sells the product, and they could never change. The design and use of materials have changed, though, as well as our taste. Some of the old packaging ideas are even being reintroduced, like the Smiths crisps with the little blue packet of salt.

Avril: I had a lovely time. Everything brought back so many extraordinary memories, like those little Canoes liver pills, and the Coty powder that I had always given my nanny for Christmas.

This is an absorbing way to learn social history. I found all these old tins, packets, bottles and posters most appealing - it's just like playing shops. Harriet was very taken by the old cash registers and household equipment scattered around, from mangles to Hoovers. I liked seeing what appealed to the children. Their violent reaction to the cumbersome Fifties' fridge was fascinating; they are so used to the streamlined equipment we have now.

I wouldn't have noticed nearly so much if they hadn't pointed things out to me. Their fascination in what I'd experienced was lovely, if a bit alarming at times. They probably felt Granny is older than God.

The deal

The Robert Opie Collection is at the Museum of Advertising and Packaging, The Albert Warehouse, Gloucester Docks, Gloucester GLl 2EH (01452 302309).

Access: Parking is possible in the Docks and there are other short-stay car parks in the area. Disabled access to the museum.

Opening times: Tues-Sun, 10am-5pm in winter months. Every day from March- Sept. Closed Christmas and Boxing Day.

Admission: Adults pounds 2.95, children 95p, OAPs and students pounds l.95, family pounds 6.95.

Food: A small museum cafe serves drinks, crisps and biscuits.

Shop: There is a small shop selling books, postcards, posters, and a few toys and gifts.

Toilets: The nearest are in the Merchants Quay shopping centre (2 minutes' walk).

Catherine Stebbings

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