Story: Wairarapa region

Page 13. Arts and heritage

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Many Wairarapa towns have small history museums, and antique and craft shops. These include the Fell Locomotive Museum in Featherston, the Museum of Childhood in Masterton and the Eketahuna and Districts Early Settlers Museum (which boasts a Matchbox toy collection).


Aratoi: the Wairarapa Museum of Art and History opened in Masterton in 2002. The complex, which has won architectural awards, incorporates the old Wesley Church as a gallery space. Aratoi grew out of the Wairarapa Arts Centre, and collects art and objects relating to the region’s history. It acts as kaitiaki (guardian) to a growing collection of taonga (Māori treasures), including several cloaks. In 2006 it became home to an important private art collection – the Rutherford Trust Collection, built up by the Department of Electricity. This includes paintings by Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston, Ralph Hotere and other national artists.

But is it art?

Ratepayer funding of the Aratoi museum was contentious. Pat White, a local artist, argued that Aratoi’s value ‘was priceless’ and could not be judged ‘in accountants’ columns’. Rod McKenzie, a dairy farmer, had once visited the Wairarapa Arts Centre ‘and saw an old railway sleeper with a bit of wire on it. I thought it was going to trip someone up so I went to pull it out when someone told me it was a display’. He thought ratepayers’ money was better spent on regional sport. 1

Wairarapa Archive

The archive, part of the Masterton library, is a storehouse for many of the region’s important documents and archives. It also publishes books on local history.

Artists and writers

The region is (and has been) home to a number of nationally important artists. These include the printmaker Gary Tricker; the potter Jim Greig; textile artist and painter Rhondda Greig; and the sculptor Sean Crawford.

Novelist and autobiographer Sylvia Ashton-Warner was educated in the Wairarapa, and fiction writer Nigel Cox was born in Pahīatua and spent part of his childhood in Masterton. His 2004 novel Tarzan Presley was set in the Wairarapa.


Awareness of Wairarapa’s cultural heritage has increased in recent decades. Archaeologists have found some 250 sites relating to early Māori settlement, including the rectangular storage pits near Tūranganui Stream at Pirinoa. More recent historic Māori sites include Pāpāwai Marae, outside Greytown, and the ornate Nukutaimemeha meeting-house in Masterton.

Important Pākehā buildings include the Anzac and Kiwi halls in Featherston (built to serve soldiers at the Featherston Military Camp during the First World War) and the Tui brewery tower at Mangatainoka.


Wairarapa’s mixed economic fortunes after 1945 ensured many historic buildings survived. This is evident in the region’s towns. Because Greytown’s sluggish growth discouraged rebuilding, the town boasts New Zealand’s most complete colonial wooden main street. Greater prosperity in nearby Carterton had led to a main street makeover. Ironically, by 1990 Greytown’s lack of change had raised its heritage value, encouraging gentrification and new growth. Martinborough and Featherston followed suit. 

  1. Quoted in ‘Fitting art and history into society.’ Wairarapa Times-Age, 14 July 2001. › Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Wairarapa region - Arts and heritage', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 November 2019)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 29 Mar 2007, updated 3 Mar 2017