Modern museums are a product of the late 18th and early 19th centuries when buildings were first set aside for collecting and displaying artefacts to the public on a mass scale. The museum we know today is a European institution, copied around the world during the 19th century, a period of imperial expansion and trade.
New Zealand’s first museum
In the settler colony of New Zealand, museums were built on British models, often copying their designs and layout from predecessors in England and Scotland. In fact the first museum and library was supposedly set up by a committee of immigrants sailing to the province of Nelson in 1841 – before they even reached New Zealand.
Māori response to museums
Europeans were not the only ones collecting and preserving objects from the past. Māori used marae in a similar way to museums, as places where arts and taonga (treasured objects) were kept and displayed. Māori responded enthusiastically to museums and exhibitions, both as visitors and as participants in collecting and in performing cultural activities. Sometimes, however, Māori and Pākehā had quite different attitudes to the kinds of things on show, for example human remains, which are tapu for Māori.
Dull or dynamic?
Museums have a reputation for being boring and static, full of dusty old objects. However, they have always been dynamic, mirroring the changes in the society around them. In the 2000s, as well as exhibiting physical objects, museums use digital technology and interactive displays. They are fun as well as being places to learn – both education and entertainment have been a constant feature of their history.
Overview of New Zealand museums
In 2012 New Zealand had at least 471 museums. Approximately 60% of New Zealand’s museums are local institutions run entirely by volunteers. Around another 30% are small museums with one to five paid fulltime staff. At the other end of the scale is the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum, which in 2013 had 328 fulltime-equivalent staff.
Many smaller museums cover the local history of their areas. Others are devoted to particular topics, for example the Kauri Museum at Matakohe, Coaltown Museum at Westport, Wellington’s Cable Car Museum and the Ashburton Aviation Museum. Specialised museums also include military museums such as the National Army Museum at Waiōuru and sports museums such as the New Zealand Cricket Museum at Wellington’s Basin Reserve.
New Zealand’s love affair with museums
In 2013 New Zealand had an estimated one museum for every 9,500 people, compared to one for every 24,000 people in the United States, every 17,000 in the United Kingdom, and every 7,500 in Australia. In the 2011/12 financial year there were 1,377,173 visits to Te Papa in Wellington; 849,000 visits to Auckland War Memorial Museum; and 480,887 visits to Otago Museum. Canterbury Museum was closed over this period due to the 2011 earthquake.
Popularity, innovation and controversy
Why are museums so popular? One reason is that museums serve an important social purpose, providing information on history, culture and science. This enables people to learn about the world as it is and prepare for the future. Additionally, museums can be a forum for debate, a safe place for ‘unsafe’ ideas or challenging ways of looking at the world. Another factor may be museums’ value as places of creativity, experimentation and play.
Museums in New Zealand have always reflected international trends, but they also shape, and are shaped by, distinctive local circumstances. In education and biculturalism, they have at times led the world. Controversies often erupt in response to changes in museums. Museum trends come and go, and ‘new’ fashions are proclaimed while ignoring their historical precedents. Despite all this, the ongoing interest in and debate about museums shows that they are a vital part of New Zealand cultural and intellectual life.