Phil Mooney’s office was a virtual museum when he started 30 years ago as archivist for Coca-Cola Co. So many people tramped through to look at the vintage bottles, trays and calendars that he had it all removed so he could get some work done.
“I said that if a museum was important, my office wasn’t the place for it,” he remembers. “We needed a realmuseum.”
He got his wish. Twice.
The new World of Coca-Cola, which opens today beside the Georgia Aquarium, replaces the old World of Coke that opened in 1990 at Underground Atlanta. Mooney, a wry, bespectacled New Englander who had never been to Atlanta before his job interview, helped plan and stock both attractions.
Twice as big as its predecessor, World of Coke 2.0 gives Mooney a splashier showcase for what has to be the coolest assemblage of Coca-Cola memorabilia in the world.
Leading a tour through the main historical exhibit a few days before opening, the 62-year-old archivist is positively effervescent as he points out some of the highlights: an ornate 1880s soda fountain, the original 1915 contour bottle, the Nasa dispenser that served Coke in space, a Coca-Cola razor from the 1910sthat shows the lengths to which the company has gone to sell fizzy refreshment.
“We got to use pretty much everything I wanted to use,” Mooney says.
As impressive as the new displays are, they represent only a fraction of the company’s collection. To get a sense of the archives’ huge scope, you have to go to a place that’s not open to the public, to the nether regions of world headquarters on North Avenue in Midtown Atlanta.
Mooney leads the way from his seventh-floor office in the Coca-Cola tower—down an elevator, across the lobby, into another building, down another elevator, down a long basement corridor. He stops at a door with a security keypad and punches in a code.
“This is where all the museum work started,” he says, entering the archives.
Inside is a warren of climate-controlled rooms with automated shelving that look like the stacks at a university library. More than a century of history is housed on the shelves and in flat drawers, each item catalogued and tagged, the paper goods sheathed in plastic. There are posters, ads, paintings done for ads, trays, calendars, bottles, corporate records, licensed products—anything, it seems, that promoted the product. Many of the items are in pristine condition because they were never used; the company kept them for reference.
Mooney pauses at a row labelled “things with cords”, where small electrics that advertised Coke are stored. He picks up a 1940s sandwich press that burned the famous logo into toasted bread. Well, not quite the famous logo— the press has “Coca” on top of “Cola” without a hyphen in between. “We don't like to see it rendered vertically like that,” he says.
In all, the archives occupy about 10,000 cubic feet and include more than 1,00,000 items, barely 1% of which are displayed in the new museum.
There’s no telling what it’s all worth. Original Norman Rockwell paintings usuallygo for more than $1 million (Rs4.1 crore) and Coke has three of them. Not to mention 43 Santa Claus paintings by Haddon Sundblom.
“This is probably the rarest item we have,” Mooney says, pressing a button and revealing a row of shelves lined with antique bottles. He reaches for a replica of the first contour Coke bottle—the real thing is behind glass in the museum— which was created in 1915 to ward off competitors with a unique package. The prototype, which had fatter contours than today’s version, had to be slimmed down to fit bottling machinery. Only two are known to exist.
Mooney figures the artifact might bring $20,000 in a collectors’ marketplace, but money is beside the point. “From a historical perspective, it really is priceless,” he says.
Is there any Coke collectible Coke doesn’t have?
“The first tray,” Mooney answers without hesitation. It came out in 1896 and showed a lady sitting at a table drinking a glass of Coke. Only three or four are known to survive. “I’m convinced another one will turn up in someone’s attic.”
When Mooney started at Coca-Cola, the company’s treasures were scattered in various offices and in a downtown warehouse that he remembers as a firetrap. A native of Lowell, Massachusetts, he had studied at Boston College and Syracuse University and was working for a non-profit library in Philadelphia when he heard about the opening in 1977.
“I wondered what people were going to think of some guy from Massachusetts coming down here to run the heritage of one of the greatest Southern institutions,” he says. “Some dude who had probably never had grits—which I hadn’t.”
But Mooney found Atlanta welcoming and settled with his wife, Kathy, and their two children. He got a quick indication of Coke’s place in the local pecking order when he applied for a credit card at Rich’s department store, gave the name of his employer and was told no further references would be required.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “We don’t do that sort of thing in the North.”
Mooney became Coca-Cola’s third archivist, following two men with impeccable old Atlanta credentials: historian Franklin Garrett and Wilbur Kurtz Jr, son of the technical adviser on Gone With the Wind. Over the years, the job has evolved. Mooney now oversees a staff of five and frequently finds himself consulted on marketing matters and intellectual property issues, in addition to the constant inquiries from collectors who want to know about this bottle or that carton. Much of the archives has been digitized and made available to employees worldwide on the company intranet. The database is not available to the public.
The possibility of a Coke museum came up at the beginning of Mooney’s tenure. Visitors had been showing up at headquarters for years asking to see company memorabilia and had to be turned away.
Chairman Paul Austin liked the idea of a museum, Mooney says, but raised a detail noone had thought through: Where would it be? Everyone agreed it shouldn’t be built on Coke’s campus.
It was 13 years before the question was answered with the facility at UndergroundAtlanta.
The new museum was designed to be even more interactive and audiovisual, Mooney says, with one old-time touch that visitors to its predecessor were always asking for. People wanted a bottling line, so Coke gave them one, a slow-motion version that lets younger customers see something they may never have seen and older ones relive plant tours from their youth.
In an effort not to repeat themselves, museum planners used only about 5% of the artifacts that were in the old World of Coke—irreplaceable items like Coca-Cola creator John S. Pemberton’s recipe book and the contract in which company head Asa Candler signed away bottling rights for $1.
One exhibit idea that was raised might come as a surprise. Mooney says they briefly considered the possibility of re-creating the SunTrust bank vault where perhaps the holiest secret in corporate America—the formula for Coca-Cola—is locked away.
"In the end, we were concerned that if we showed even a little bit of the formula, it would start to chip away at the equity we've built in that legend over more than a century." Some things, the archivist says, are better left in a vault.