Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.


by Conal McCarthy

New Zealand has one of the highest numbers of museums per capita in the world. Some, such as Te Papa, are large, high-tech world-leading institutions, while many are local, regional museums staffed by enthusiastic volunteers.

Museums in New Zealand culture

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.

The foundation years, 1850 to 1900

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.

    • F. A. Bather, Some colonial museums. London: Museums Association, 1894, p. 208. Back

Ethnology, research and building projects, 1900 to 1945

Museums in the new century

After the initial flurry of setting up museums, there were few significant new developments until after 1900, though exhibitions still proved popular. In the early 20th century museums had something of an image problem and attendances declined. Some institutions explored novel styles of display to compete with modern attractions such as cinema. Changes to museum subjects and displays helped revive public interest from the 1920s onwards.

Museums for enlightenment

In 1934 Governor-General Lord Bledisloe expounded on museums’ role in education, when laying the foundation stone for the new National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum. He said that the new institutions should become ‘not a storehouse of fusty and ill-assorted curios and a farrago of artistic mediocrity, but a source of intellectual and aesthetic enlightenment which will vitalise every sphere of educational effort.’1

Building and studying Māori collections

In terms of collections, a new interest developed in subjects such as ethnology, including Māori material culture. Augustus Hamilton, James Hector’s successor as director of the Colonial (later the Dominion) Museum, concentrated on enlarging and displaying the Māori collection. Pacific and ‘foreign’ ethnological collections were also built up, though largely by donation rather than active collecting.

In 1910 Hamilton appointed ethnologist Elsdon Best to research and write on Māori subjects. Thomas Heberley, Te Āti Awa carver and cultural expert, became, in 1924, the first Māori to hold a fulltime position at the museum.

In 1918 Otago Museum appointed ethnologist H. D. Skinner as assistant curator. Skinner employed David Teviotdale and Leslie Lockerbie as archaeologists. Canterbury Museum appointed Roger Duff in 1938, who carried out important archaeological work at Pyramid Valley (North Canterbury) and Wairau Bar. Gilbert Archey, Auckland Museum director from 1924, was a zoologist, but developed a strong interest in Māori art.

Research and education

During the 1920s and 1930s Auckland Museum employed a range of biological researchers including ornithologist Robert Falla, conchologist (shell expert) A. W. B. Powell and botanist Lucy Cranwell. The museum organised a major scientific expedition to Three Kings Islands in 1934 for biological and geological research.

In the 1910s and 1920s Amy Castle was employed as entomologist at the Dominion Museum, researching and building up the insect collection. The museum also appointed Thomas Lindsay Buick as historical researcher in 1934. A notable feature of this period was the provision of education staff and facilities, funded initially by the Carnegie Foundation of the United States.

The interwar museum building boom

In the 1920s and 1930s a wave of new museums and building extensions occurred, responding to local pressures and international trends. The Auckland War Memorial Museum reopened in 1929, in a grand building in the Auckland Domain, as a monument to the First World War dead. Then in 1936 the National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum opened in Wellington, joining the National War Memorial and carillon on Mt Cook. This temple of culture and mausoleum of national sacrifice was referred to as ‘Wellington’s Acropolis’. Outside the main centres, several regional galleries and museums were built or extended: in Dunedin and Whanganui in the 1920s, and in Christchurch and Napier in the 1930s.

Dioramas to documentaries

While working at the Colonial Museum in 1905, James McDonald built a model that remained on display for 60 years. At the Dominion Museum, from 1912, he built and painted the models for dioramas and illustrated museum publications. McDonald also became the museum photographer and managed the photograph collection. But, most significantly, he filmed Māori in remote areas around Gisborne, the East Coast and Whanganui from 1919 to 1923.

Changes to displays

Moving to larger premises allowed changes in displays, avoiding the clutter of the Victorian era. The bigger museums now stored a large quantity of their collections and displayed a smaller proportion of artefacts in more spacious settings. Different subjects, such as ethnology, geology or zoology, had their own exhibition halls. The Dominion Museum and the Auckland War Memorial Museum had Māori halls with waka (canoes), wharenui (meeting houses) and pātaka (storehouses) on display. Dioramas (three-dimensional models), first used in the 19th century, became a common feature of museums in this period.

    • The proper function and scope of a national art gallery and Museum: address of his excellency Lord Bledisloe, Governor-General of New Zealand. Auckland: Wilson & Horton, 1934, p. 2. Back

Museums expand and diversify, 1945 to 1990

Post-war expansion and diversification

After the Second World War there was a rapid increase internationally in the number and types of museums. Among these were children’s museums, transport museums, maritime museums, science museums, community museums, outdoor museums, heritage parks and historic house museums.

These institutions became increasingly specialised in their internal organisation. Previously staff consisted of directors and generalist curators, with technical staff who did everything else. Now there were separate roles for managers, collection managers, designers, conservators and educators. There was also greater breadth and specialisation in collecting. Collections were built in different branches of the natural sciences, social history, clothing and textiles, decorative arts and photography.

Algae, seaweeds, needlework

In 1959 Nancy Adams, one of New Zealand’s foremost botanical artists, was appointed the National Museum’s assistant curator of botany. Her particular focus was on algae. Adams’s 1994 Seaweeds of New Zealand is an acknowledged masterpiece. Less well known was her deep interest in needlework, embroidery and textile history. She worked behind the scenes on many of the historical interior exhibits set up at the museum in the 1960s, with the unofficial title of ‘keeper of costumes’.1

These international changes also occurred in New Zealand museums. While the International Council Of Museums (ICOM ) formalised procedures and codes of ethics, from 1947 the Art Gallery and Museums Association of New Zealand adapted these guidelines to local conditions. Metropolitan and regional museums became more professional. This involved the training and specialisation of staff, more funding and higher standards of collections care and storage, and improved exhibitions and public programmes.

Smaller museums, however, generally could not afford the staff and technological advances seen in larger institutions. Many remained essentially amateur in nature, continuing to be governed by private societies. The overall trend was towards governance through public trusts, or direct management and funding through local city or district councils.

Museums focus on New Zealand history

While in touch with museum developments in Britain, Australia and the United States, New Zealand museums also began to focus on the country’s own cultural heritage and national identity. Before the Second World War only a few museums, such as the Otago Early Settlers’ Museum (later Toitū Otago Settlers Museum), paid much attention to Pākehā colonial history.

Increased public interest during the 1940s, after New Zealand celebrated its centennial, was reflected in museum displays. Auckland and Canterbury museums set up replica streets, showing idealised versions of colonial-era shops. Interiors were popular exhibits, generally representing the furniture and fittings of middle-class colonial families’ rooms. Significant collections such as the Dominion Museum’s Elgar furniture were acquired at this time.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the appearance of New Zealand history as a subject in schools and universities, and an unparalleled interest in museums, historic buildings and sites. New museums sprang up in many provincial towns around the country, including the Waikato Museum in Hamilton in 1965, Manawatū Museum (later Te Manawa) in Palmerston North in 1971, and the Petone Settlers Museum in 1977.

Museum research

Museums continued to be bases for research, particularly in anthropology and the natural sciences. Most researchers were based at the larger museums. They included anthropologist David Simmons at Auckland and archaeologist Janet Davidson at the National Museum. Some smaller museums also carried out significant research, such as that of Nelson Provincial Museum’s photography curator Maurice Watson.

Te Māori and mātauranga Māori

When the landmark Te Māori exhibition returned to New Zealand, scholar Hirini Moko Mead said, ‘The Maori people want to control their own heritage; they want to be the people who handle their taonga; they want to have the knowledge to explain them to other cultures; they want to explain them to their own people; they want to define their past and present existence, they want to control their own knowledge (matauranga Maori) and they want to present themselves their way to the world and to themselves.’2

Te Māori brings change

In the 1980s Te Māori was a ground-breaking exhibition that changed the direction of New Zealand museums, becoming a touchstone for the Māori renaissance. It opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1984 and toured the United States before returning to New Zealand in 1986, where it was seen by almost a million people.

Te Māori was recognised for acknowledging Māori understandings of their carving as taonga (treasures), living things with spiritual dimension. It incorporated tikanga Māori (Māori customs) into many aspects of museum work, particularly opening and closing ceremonies. The exhibition has been credited with initiating sweeping changes in museums, an increase in Māori staff, use of the Māori language in labels and stronger relationships with local iwi.

    • Quoted in Bronwyn Labrum, ‘Reliving the colonial past: histories, heritage, and the exhibition interior in postwar New Zealand.’ In Interiors 12, no. 1, p. 35. Back
    • Quoted in Conal McCarthy, Exhibiting Māori: a history of colonial cultures of display. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2007, p. 146. Back

New museums for the new century, 1990 to 2013

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.

    • Paul Tapsell, Māori treasures of New Zealand, Auckland: David Bateman in association with Auckland War Memorial Museum, 2006, p. 17. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Conal McCarthy, 'Museums', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Conal McCarthy, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014