Carried Away: Bags Unpacked 

Every bag has a history, a story to tell – from haute couture fashion to cultural traditions. Bags can convey social standing, practical needs or be a statement of art. This 2019 exhibition showcased over 150 individual bags from Auckland Museum’s collection, many on display for the first time.

The bag reveals as much as it conceals.

The bag reveals as much as it conceals.

From curious creations such as an albatross foot purse and bear gut bag with fur trim, to taonga imbued with Māori and Pacific cultural values such as kete and bilum, the exhibition explores the stories associated with their creation and the people who used them.

This exhibition is truly global with over thirty countries represented. Highlights include an inrō from Japan, a useful accessory for pocketless kimonos, to a leather handbag from England, that carries a 1800’s London Underground map. Iconic fashion designers Issey Miyake and Gianni Versace also make an appearance.

Ranging from 1750’s to today, the design, materials, and techniques used to create what are both everyday objects and unique pieces of art and design are on display.

Films tailormade for the exhibition delve into the different creations of bags and their owners. From leatherwork and weaving, to showcasing contemporary and traditional techniques, these films remind us of the people who once used them and that bags are ubiquitous objects part of daily life.

Handwork bag by Vita Cochran, 2007. Auckland Museum Collection: 2007.112.1 All rights reserved

Featured item

Creative, practical, and gruesome. We're shining a light on one of the more unique items from the exhibition. 

Albatross foot purse

Albatross foot purse

The albatross is the world’s largest seabird and has long been considered by sailors as a good-luck charm.

Without more traditional bag making materials available at sea, an albatross’s foot works surprisingly well (if a bit gruesomely) as a purse. Resourceful sailors travelling through the Southern Ocean saw these majestic birds in a practical light, and their feet were often made into pouches to hold tobacco.

With its wrinkly skin and claws still visible, this particular pouch has been fashioned into a coin purse, evident by the floral filigree frame that clasps it shut.

Our records say this purse could have been made by a sailor en route to Australia either on a convict, merchant, or immigrant ship, perhaps for his sweetheart.

To learn how such a curious object came into being, take our Google Arts & Culture audio tour

Albatross Foot Purse M1742

Virtually walk through the exhibition

Click the arrows to move through this 3D virtual walk-through.




Meet the curator

As part of our Experts series, Carried Away exhibition curator Grace Lai takes us on a deep dive into some of the bags in the collection. 

Bags & Other Stories

Grace Lai

Bags & Other Stories

From bilums to backpacks, ketes to knapsacks and pouches to pockets, bags come in all shapes and sizes. While their name and form may differ across cultures and histories, the bag is one of the most universally used object in the world and all function to carry not just things but stories.

Join Grace Lai, Curator of Applied Arts and Design as she looks at the world through the humble reusable bag that has now become an essential tool for our daily lives.


+Read Grace's bio

Guided by a curiosity for forgotten stories held by objects that are often overlooked, Grace Lai is an art historian and curator who engages with material culture as a decoder of the immaterial, to question areas relevant not only to Museums and their collections but contemporary society.

Currently, Grace is the Curator of Applied Arts & Design at Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum where she leads the exhibition, development and research of a nationally significant archive of craft from Aotearoa New Zealand and abroad.

Her collection centered work focuses on strengthening the representation of marginalised stories through both collection development and research. In 2019, Grace delivered the exhibition “Carried Away: Bags Unpacked” which took a deep dive into a single object as a lens to unpack wider social-cultural issues; including colonialism, economy, gender politics and whakapapa.