What can a cookie tin, a Rubik’s Cube, and a novel tell us about Britain’s royal family?
Quite alot according to Robert Opie, who has been a collector since before he can remember. Today, his collection makes up a museum in London.
It’s crammed full of souvenirs from the past few hundred years and among them a whole souvenir history of Britain’s royal family.
Steeped in tradition
The objects tell a story of a monarchy steeped in tradition and decorum - a theme that Opie says is reflected in the very nature of the souvenirs themselves.
"I think the story of the wedding souvenirs and indeed royal souvenirs in general is that they maintain very much a traditional structure," Opie explained. "We’ve got mugs and plates and jugs. We’ve got tins, which often contain chocolate or biscuits. We’ve got the flags, we’ve got all kinds of royal souvenirs which kind of capture the moment. So there is very much a continuity of style that maintains throughout the story."
But he says that story is changing. At his Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in London, Opie has documented a rapid liberalization of British culture since the 1960s.
He says that’s resulted in a new style of royal souvenir that breaks with the traditional repertoire of the past.
Charles & Diana
The first major royal event that really showed this shift, he says, was the wedding of Prince Charles to Diana.
"Certainly for 1981 with Charles and Di the latest thing was a tea towel," explained Opie, "and there are quite a few different examples and the other for that particular moment was the annoying Rubik’s Cube, which only children seemed to be able to do and that was the latest innovations, so of course they did a royal one for that."
That wedding also marked a shift in the real lives of the royal family, says publicist Richard Fitzwilliams, an expert on the royal family.
He says Diana, through both her life and death, brought the royal family closer to the British public and especially to young people.
William & Kate
Fitzwilliams says Prince William and Kate Middleton are the perfect couple to bring that mantle forward.
"I would say William and Catherine are the perfect team to take the monarchy into the new century because there is no doubt they are so responsive to public feeling," the publicist said. "They are tremendously popular. And you can see in the walkabouts and the official duties they’ve performed so far how at ease they are with people."
Fitzwilliams says the relationship between William and Kate shows just how much the monarchy has changed in recent decades.
Diana was only 20 years old when she married into the royal family. Up until her wedding day she referred to Prince Charles as ‘sir’ and even her sexual history was a topic of public concern.
This year’s bride is another story altogether. Kate is 29 years old. She has a university degree. And she and William have lived together on and off for the past 10 years.
Fitzwilliams says the different brides reflect a changing Britain.
"The relationship between William and Catherine is a very modern relationship," he noted. "What is particularly significant is that this is the first time that the heir to the throne of Britain can actually choose his bride regardless of class."
Collector Robert Opie says the popularization of the royal family can be seen in this year’s royal wedding souvenirs.
A romantic fiction graphic novel is on display at his museum. Royal wedding beers, condoms, and sick bags have also been specially made for the event.
"At the moment I’m seeing more souvenirs that have a little bit of an edge in terms of a feeling of alternative monarchy," Opie said. "So it’s a little bit more edgy in the way that it’s portrayed."
When contraception replaces cookie tins as a royal souvenir, it might be a sign that the times really are changing.
*For more information on the Royal Wedding, visit our Special Reports page