Food as collection object
Museum collections contain a wide variety of object types, each requiring their own storage solution. One of the more challenging types of object is food.
Food? In a museum?
Yes, as strange as it sounds, we do have food in the collection.
In our History collection we have examples of military rations from WW2, Turkish preserved dates from WWI, and preserved beef from polar expeditions. We also have a selection of food collected as examples of New Zealand social history, including cans of Wattie's, packets of Cadbury Bournville Cocoa, aeroplane-shaped cake decorations and tins of Toheroa soup.
Our Applied Arts collection contains a set of Waiwera water bottles (with the original water still inside), as an example of New Zealand design. The Archaeology collection has a selection of tubes containing remnants of food from an archaeological dig in Robenhausen, Switzerland. In the Botany wet collection you can even find an assortment of fruit (including kiwifruit and apples) preserved in ethanol.
But how do you preserve it?
Generally, the last thing that you want in a collection store or gallery space is food. Food attracts pests, which then do damage to the collection. This is why we limit the spaces in the museum where people can have food and drink. But what do you do when the collection is food?
The same thing that you do at home - put it in the fridge. In our case, we have a range of reduced temperature stores which are used to keep certain types of collection object at very cold temperatures - from just above freezing (0C) all the way down to -30C. Cooling down the collection object slows down the chemical process of deterioration of the object, in the same way that putting a steak in the freezer preserves it until you're ready to barbeque it.
In some cases, it is not the food itself that is considered an object, but the packaging that contained the food. In these instances, the food is removed from the packaging when it is accessioned into the collection. The packaging can then be stored with other similar objects at room temperature.
And in the case of the botanical specimens, they are preserved in a fluid which prevents deterioration. This is done with all of our wet collections - botany, entomology, land vertebrates and marine.
So what's on the menu then?
If we had to make a menu out of our collection items, it would go something like this:
You cannot eat our collections. You can find these objects and more in Collections Online.
Post by: Megan Harvey
Megan is a Collection Manager, Collection Care at Auckland Museum and works in preventive conservation.