Story: Museums

Page 2. The foundation years, 1850 to 1900

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Establishing the major museums

In the United Kingdom many museums and art galleries were founded after the very popular industrial exhibitions, in particular the Great Exhibition of 1851. In New Zealand the first such exhibition was held in Dunedin in 1865.

During the second half of the 19th century museums were established in New Zealand’s four main centres:

  • The Auckland Institute and Museum had its modest origins in an old wooden shed in 1852, before it moved to more permanent lodgings in 1867. It later became the Auckland War Memorial Museum (in 1929).
  • The Colonial Museum opened in 1865 when Wellington became the capital. It became the Dominion Museum in 1907, the National Museum in 1972 and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in 1992.
  • The Canterbury Museum in Christchurch began with scientist and explorer Julius Haast’s own collection in 1861. In 1867 the collection was moved to a small cottage, and it moved again in 1870, when the beautiful gothic-revival museum building was completed.
  • In 1877 Otago Museum, founded in 1868, moved into a fine neoclassical building within Otago University.

Hector the director of (almost) everything

James Hector was Colonial Museum director for almost 40 years. He also acted as the president of the New Zealand Institute, the forerunner of the Royal Society, and managed the Botanic Gardens, Meteorological Office, Geological Survey and other bodies. Late in his career Hector was criticised for neglecting the displays. In 1894 the museum was described as probably ‘the worst managed institution of the kind in the whole of the southern hemisphere.’1

A focus on natural history

New Zealand’s early museums initially concentrated on natural history, particularly geology. They were strongly connected to scientific societies of gentlemen collectors and naturalists. Four scientists were closely associated with this first generation of museums: Frederick Hutton at Otago Museum, Julius Haast at Canterbury Museum, James Hector in Wellington and Thomas Cheeseman in Auckland.

The museums were sites for research as well as public education. Hutton, Haast and Hector were primarily geologists, while Cheeseman’s speciality was botany. Hector employed John Buchanan as botanist and graphic artist at the Colonial Museum.

Early museum displays

The Colonial Museum and larger provincial museums had sizable, well-lit central halls, where exhibits were arranged in a manner designed for public education. Animals, plants and minerals were displayed to show the relationships between them, illustrating the progression from ‘simple’ to more ‘advanced’ forms. This followed the evolutionary ideas of the time. Artefacts from Māori and other supposedly primitive cultures were often mixed in among natural history exhibits. Displays had a mix of table and wall specimen cases, free-standing skeletons, and models of moa and other animals. There were also busts, whakairo (Māori carvings), paintings and photographs.


Māori houses or wharenui were used to display Māori material, but in ways that took little account of tradition. Te Hau-ki-Tūranga, at the Colonial Museum, was taken from the East Coast during the wars of the 1860s. Hau-te-ana-nui-a-Tangaroa, completed in 1875, was constructed for the Canterbury Museum by Hōne Tāhu and Tāmati Ngākaho. Auckland Museum purchased the Ngāti Pikiao wharenui Rangitihi in 1906. The Ngāti Awa wharenui Mataatua, presented to the government in 1879, was acquired by Otago Museum in 1925 and returned to the iwi in 1998.

Museums displayed most of the material they held, so halls became very cluttered. There was a focus on New Zealand material, but there were also many specimens from abroad. These were usually obtained from overseas museums and collectors in exchange for items such as moa skeletons.

Auckland Museum had built up the colony’s largest Māori collection by the 1890s, and this was further expanded with the acquisition of the Gilbert Mair collection in 1901. The East Coast waka taua (war canoe) Te Toki-a-Tāpiri was displayed prominently.

  1. F. A. Bather, Some colonial museums. London: Museums Association, 1894, p. 208. Back
How to cite this page:

Conal McCarthy, 'Museums - The foundation years, 1850 to 1900', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 May 2024)

Story by Conal McCarthy, published 22 Oct 2014