Message in a Bottle

Message in a Bottle

There are thousands of objects within the Auckland Museum Human History collections made of glass, ranging from ornate tableware to utilitarian vacuum tubes.

Many more of these glass objects are bottles, long since emptied of their contents but valued because of the historical data their labels hold, and the design properties of the bottles themselves. However, within this wide-ranging group, there is an assortment of bottles which still retain their contents.


Bottles brimming with wine, Coca-Cola and other pharmaceutical wonders are held within the general collection store, amongst thousands of other precious taonga.

And this is where the problem starts - while in Natural Sciences collections we actually use liquids to preserve objects, in Human History collections, liquids are generally to be avoided at all costs!

Cheese and ginger beer containers, Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, col.1842, col.2496 and 14039


Various Articles of Food and Drink, Food Demonstration Model, Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 1996x2.196

As we've described in previous posts, the Museum goes to great lengths to ensure that no food or drink are found in object spaces. Human food attracts pests, which also like to eat collection objects - which is the last thing we want to have happen!

However, in the case of historical bottles containing original liquids, the liquid is the very thing which we want to preserve for the future.

This gives us the challenge of safely storing liquids within their original (possibly very fragile) glass containers, while keeping other collection objects safe.


These liquids could do untold damage if spilled on other objects - just imagine a wine bottle breaking, then leaking its contents onto unsuspecting textiles stored on shelves below. A red wine spill onto your favourite dress is disasterous enough at home - but cleaning takes on a whole other dimension within a Museum context.

Therefore, the first rule of Museum conservation is prevention - storing taonga in ways to stop damage from occurring in the first place. In the case of the history collection bottles, this means keeping them in strong plastic tubs, nested in protective ethafoam, and sealed in individual plastic bags. As well as this, the tubs are stored on the bottom shelves in the collection store, so that they cannot leak onto any other objects if disaster strikes.

'Fatty Matter' - detail of a Food Demonstration Model, one of the many objects rehoused in this project, Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 1996x2.196

Elise and Margaret recording measurements of bottles containing liquids, before rehousing them, Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

In order to rehouse this entire collection, we recruited two lovely volunteers, Margaret and Elise, to assist with nesting bottles and updating collection records.

They helped me assess if glass bottles contained liquids or other mysterious substances, measure bottles to scope the size and number of plastic tubs required, and ensured that we kept track of which bottles we had removed from their storage crates.

This project gave us a rare chance to delve into the history collection, and enrich the catalogue records of these weird and wonderful objects.

Some of the more interesting finds along the way included a Food Demonstration Model, which contained over 40 bottles of 'fatty matter', 'alcohol', and other constituents of food; a 30+ year old bottle of coca cola from the 1987 America's Cup in Freemantle, Australia, and a selection of wines made in Henderson!

Selection of wine bottles from Henderson vineyards, Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, col.3151, col.3153, col.3154, col.3155, col.3156, col.3157 and col.3767

  • Post by: Megan Harvey

    Megan is a Collection Manager, Collection Care at Auckland Museum and works in preventive conservation.