In general, museums in New Zealand have developed as institutions distinct from art galleries, covering the major fields of natural history, geology, and ethnology. In most cases additional responsibilities have been accepted to one degree or another for the fine arts, history, and technology. The major museums have always maintained a threefold museum ideal of education, curation, and research, ideals which have largely shaped the development of the museum movement in New Zealand.
The four main museums in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin were established in permanent museum buildings between the years 1865 and 1877. In several cases forerunners had existed and the collections from these became incorporated in the more official museums which developed. The museum in Wellington, first named the Colonial Museum, and, later, the Dominion Museum, was established in 1865, largely as a result of representations made by James Hector, its original collections comprising, first, the small collection made by the New Zealand Society (defunct since 1861), to which was added some of the material brought together for the New Zealand Exhibition held in Dunedin in 1865 and specimens gathered during the geological survey of the Province of Wellington. The first Director was Hector, who was also in charge of the Geological Survey, the Meteorological and Astronomical Services, and the Colonial Laboratory. The first building was erected in Museum Street, where the museum remained until a new building on the present site was formally opened in 1936.
The Auckland Philosophical Society, now the Auckland Institute (a branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand), began in 1867. Two years later the Auckland Provincial Council handed over a small collection to the society. T. Kirk acted as secretary and curator until 1874, when T. F. Cheeseman was appointed curator, a post which he held until his death in 1923. A new building on the present site was opened in 1929.
The Canterbury Museum was instituted by Julius von Haast in 1861. The basic collections consisted of specimens acquired by Haast during the previous two years while he had been associated with Hochstetter's investigations in New Zealand, material collected by Haast while he was Provincial Geologist of Canterbury, and some small collections purchased by the Provincial Government. These collections were exhibited to the public in temporary quarters in 1867. A separate building was erected and opened in 1870. Haast remained as curator until his death in 1887. The original material upon which the Otago Museum was established also stemmed in part from the New Zealand Exhibition of 1865, together with specimens accumulated during the geological survey of Otago. A preliminary meeting of the museum committee was held in 1868 and the first building was opened in 1877 with F. W. Hutton as curator.
The early development of these four major museums depended very much upon the enthusiasm, knowledge, and drive of four individuals, Hector, Cheeseman, von Haast, and Hutton. Hutton has the unique distinction of being closely associated with the early development of three of these museums, at Wellington, Otago, and Canterbury, besides being an early member of the Auckland Philosophical Society. At the present time these four major museums are still in active operation in new or greatly enlarged buildings. A marked feature of the development of museums in New Zealand has been the establishment and growth of smaller museums, such as those at Gisborne, Napier, New Plymouth, Nelson, and Invercargill, in addition to many others devoted to specialist themes, usually of a historic nature.