Corporate ‘Museums’: The World of Coca Cola
On the 12th of March 1894, the first bottles of Coca-Cola were sold in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the drink invented by Atlanta pharmacist Dr. John Pemberton eight years earlier. Joseph Biedenharn, the owner of the soda fountain in Vicksburg, was the first to install bottling machinery in the rear of his store. Their popularity quickly spread and customers enjoyed the convenience of these transportable drinks throughout the South of the United States. Sales and profits skyrocketed with the expansion of Coca Cola over the last 120 years, turning the humble bottle into the most widely recognized commercial symbol worldwide.
It was only a matter of time until the corporation would want to start celebrating the history of its most lasting product in a more permanent setting. Located in Atlanta, Georgia, The World of Coca Cola opened to the public in 2007 on a 20-acre expanse. It boasts room after room of its well-known advertising, as well as a host of entertainment areas and attractions, designed to lure the public into commercial worship. Corporate museums are not a new concept and hundreds have popped up around the world mimicking tourist attractions. Most started off as a small set of old exhibits in the back rooms of company headquarters, visited by local staff or clients. In past decades, factory or plant tours were also accessible to the public and staff families, but have since been made obsolete due to insurance limitations and health and safety regulations.
From the new mega-corporate museums, The World of Coca Cola is possibly the most ambitious as far as its size, cost and self-promotion is considered. Neil Harris wrote about an earlier version of the museum and the attention it already elicited: “The World of Coca-Cola is one of a growing series of corporate museums stretching from the BMW Museum in Munich to Motorola’s Museum of Electronics in suburban Chicago. (…) Opulently conceived and planned by the well-known exhibition specialists Staples & Charles of Washington, it is also strategically placed. Its fountained plaza abuts the entry to Underground Atlanta, a major tourist attraction, and the museum stands, appropriately, just a short distance from the Georgia Capitol. Coke and state are joined physically as they are spiritually. (…) The three-story limestone building designed by the architectural firm Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates boasts a twenty-six-foot flashing and rotating neon sign. This signifier, playing with the building’s title, also sums up the most powerful thematic thrust of the show inside. The famed trademark occupies a thirty-foot globe, outlined by almost fifteen hundred bulbs and even more feet of neon, thus objectifying Coca-Cola as a worldwide power unifying the peoples of the earth in what may be the best-known commercial symbol.” (Neil Harris, ‘The World of Coca-Cola’, The Journal of American History, Vol. 82, No. 1, Jun., 1995).
Can we hope to find any art in a corporate museum such as this? Amongst the concentrated display of kitsch collectibles, memorabilia, antiquities, vintage stationary, there are elements which have been given an artistic edge: in the bottling factory sector one could once listen to soundtracks such as the repetitive Bottling Fantasy by Jan Bochenek. Most corners of the museum are nowadays livened up with interactive exhibits and film clips. The image of Coke is perpetuated through folklore and advertising and raised to pop art status, in the work of illustrators and artists such as Haddon Sundbloom, Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol. Playing on the idea of nostalgic vintage commercials such as the Coca-Cola Santa and Polar Bear, Coke is presented as a social ameliorator, helping people to get through hard times, such as the Great Depression. Coke is featured in jolly Shirley Temple films and there is a Happiness Factory Theatre in the museum showing uplifting films. A free tasting room and a logo-mad bulging gift shop add to the upbeat atmosphere the visitor is encouraged to experience. Equally, there is a strong emphasis on global domination conveyed through clips of people sipping Coke next to landmarks ranging from the Pyramids to the Eiffel tower.
“In this lively museum of commodity capitalism, almost every aspect of the product and of its symbolic values is explored, and nothing is more truly interactive than this immense trademark.” (Harris) With much more productive opening times and visitor numbers than any art or history museum, this kind of corporate display cathedral intends to provide a neutral historical timeline of its brand. However, what Coke provides is a reinterpretation of history, albeit a distorted one, seen through the wiggly glass of its bottle. The bias is obvious when history is seen from the prism of a singular commercial product. The main success story here is that of capitalist wealth accumulation – Teachers’ Toolkits are now available for elementary school children to start early on in their pursuit of the American dream, by learning about the history of Coca Cola.
Sadly, except for those few wonder men who invented Coke over a century ago, the achievements and lives of millions of its underpaid workers are ignored. In his subversively satirical Belching Out the Devil: Global Adventures with Coca-Cola (2009), Mark Thomas travels the world to find out more about the truths the corporation forgets to highlight in its museum tour stops, such as the museum’s multicultural ‘Live Positively’ Portrait Wall. Facts which he finds in “Colombia (where Coke ignored the murders of union organizers), India (where its factories are depleting the water table) and Mexico (where bottlers illegally refused to sell to bodegas that stocked competing brands)” (Justin Moyer, book review in The Washington Post, 12 July 2009). Seeing as the book was written a few years ago, one can only hope that the corporation has kept its ethical promises to change the world for the better.