Story: Museums

Page 5. New museums for the new century, 1990 to 2013

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The museum boom, 1990s to 2000s

The 1990s and 2000s saw an unprecedented boom in new museums. Museums and art galleries were constructed that became focal points of regional and national identity and culture, including:

  • Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa) in Wellington (1998)
  • Museum of Wellington City and Sea (1999)
  • Pataka in Porirua (2001)
  • Aratoi in Masterton (2002)
  • Puke Ariki in New Plymouth (2003).

A number of the new institutions integrated gallery, museum, library or archive functions into one organisation – for example Puke Ariki, a combined museum, art gallery, library, archive and tourist information centre. Some had a different focus and feel to the older style of museum, with:

  • a broad interest in cultural and natural heritage
  • attractions that included physical interactives or computers
  • strong marketing and visitor services to appeal to tourists.

Museums embrace popular culture

This shift in thinking coincided with changes in public-sector management. Museums had to generate more of their own income as public funding decreased. Going to a museum became less like going to church and more like hanging out at a café or mall. Museums now collected a wide range of popular material culture; for example Auckland Museum acquired a ‘pocket collection,’ comprising the contents of a child’s pocket. The larger, older museums had such extensive collections of all kinds that less than 10% could be on display. Museums began developing internet access to archived material.

Controversy at Te Papa

Te Papa became at once a popular success and a source of controversy. Art lovers had misgivings about the integration of former National Art Gallery collections into the new museum. Critics dismissed Te Papa as the ‘MTV of museums’. Prime Minister Helen Clark famously criticised the display of a Colin McCahon painting near a fridge of the same era. In 1998 religious protesters picketed Te Papa over a Tania Kovats sculpture, ‘Virgin in a condom’. Counter protests followed from supporters of artistic freedom.

Te Papa and Māori involvement in museums

The flagship of the new museums was Te Papa, which opened on Wellington’s waterfront in 1998. Te Papa’s new approaches and interactive techniques, which were audience- rather than object-focused, proved very successful with a wide cross section of New Zealanders, including many Māori visitors. In the 2000s it was the most visited museum in Australasia.

Te Papa has an international reputation for its innovative bicultural practices, including its own functioning marae, a Māori director, or kaihautū, alongside the chief executive, and the integration of Māori perspectives on collecting and display of taonga (treasures).

For some Māori these changes are not enough. There are signs that some iwi, after the settlement of their Treaty of Waitangi claims, would like to take their taonga out of museums and put them in their own cultural centres. One such repatriation occurred in 1998, when Otago Museum returned Mataatua wharenui (meeting house) to the Ngāti Awa people of Whakatāne.

The nature of taonga

Paul Tapsell, former Māori director of Auckland War Memorial Museum, said that taonga ‘can be tangible like a cloak, a greenstone or a war canoe, or they can be intangible like the knowledge used to carve, recite genealogy or sing a lament … Taonga are time travellers that bridge the generations, enabling descendants to ritually meet their ancestors face to face.’1

Regional museums in the 2000s

By 2000 Te Papa’s dynamic style of design had spread into museums around the country, and to other sectors, particularly in the heritage industry. This led to a boom in museum redevelopment that only subsided after the recession of 2008. Museums continued to reinvent themselves, building displays around their collection strengths. This can be seen in:

  • Auckland War Memorial Museum’s galleries on New Zealand’s military history and its armoury collection
  • Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT), the country’s largest technology museum
  • Whanganui Regional Museum’s taonga Māori collection, featuring the waka taua (war canoe) Te Mata o Hoturoa
  • Te Awamutu Museum’s New Zealand wars collection, along with an exhibition on locally born musicians Tim and Neil Finn and their rock band Split Enz
  • MTG (Museum Theatre Gallery) Hawke’s Bay’s focus on the 1931 earthquake, and also important design and textile collections
  • Nelson Provincial Museum’s extensive historic photography collection
  • Canterbury Museum’s internationally significant Antarctic collection
  • Otago Museum’s strong focus on Māori, colonial history and natural history of the Otago region, along with their tropical butterfly house
  • Toitū Otago Settlers Museum’s colonial history collections
  • Southland Museum and Art Gallery’s subantarctic islands collection.

Museum professionals – training and organisation

In 2014 Auckland, Massey and Victoria universities offered tertiary courses in museum studies. The Museum Graduate Internship Programme gave museum studies graduates the opportunity to work on museum projects under a mentor. The certificate in museum practice provided an entry-level qualification for museum workers. Museum workers also had their own professional organisation, Museums Aotearoa.

  1. Paul Tapsell, Māori treasures of New Zealand, Auckland: David Bateman in association with Auckland War Memorial Museum, 2006, p. 17. Back
How to cite this page:

Conal McCarthy, 'Museums - New museums for the new century, 1990 to 2013', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Conal McCarthy, published 22 Oct 2014