The Auckland War Memorial Museum (Auckland Museum) Tāmaki Paenga Hira is one of New Zealand’s most important museums and war memorials. Its collections concentrate on New Zealand history, natural history, and military history.
The museum is also one of the most iconic Auckland buildings, constructed in the neo-classicist style, and sitting on a grassed plinth (the remains of a dormant volcano) in the Auckland Domain, a large public park close to the Auckland CBD.
Auckland Museum’s collections and exhibits began in 1852. In 1867 Aucklanders formed a learned society – the Auckland Philosophical Society, later the Auckland Institute. Within a few years the society merged with the museum and Auckland Institute and Museum was the organisation’s name until 1996. Auckland War Memorial Museum was the name of the new building opened in 1929, but since 1996 was more commonly used for the institution as well. From 1991 to 2003 the museum’s Maori name was Te Papa Whakahiku.
In the early years of the 20th century the Auckland museum and its collections flourished under visionary curator Thomas Cheeseman, who tried to establish a sense of order and separated the natural history, classical sculpture and anthropological collections which had previously been displayed in a rather unsystematic way. The need for better display conditions and extra space necessitated a move from the Princes St site and eventually the project for a purpose-built museum merged with that of the war memorial to commemorate soldiers lost in World War I. The site was a hill in the Government Domain commanding an impressive view of the Waitemata Harbour. Permission was granted by the Auckland City Council in 1918, the Council in its liberality being given three seats on the Museum Council. As well as an initial gift of £10,000 the Council also agreed to an annual subsidy from the rates towards maintenance of the facility and eventually coaxed several of the other local bodies to the principle of an annual statutory levy of £6,000 to support the museum’s upkeep.
The worldwide architectural competition was funded by the Institute of British Architects, a £1,000 sterling prize drew over 70 entries, with Auckland firm Grierson, Aimer and Draffin winning the competition with their neo-classical building reminiscent of Greco-Roman temples. In 1920 the present Domain site was settled on as a home for the museum and in the 1920s after successful fund-raising led by Auckland Mayor Sir James Gunson, building of the Auckland War Memorial Museum began, with construction completed in 1929. It was opened by the Governor-General General Sir Charles Fergusson.
Two additions were made to the 1929 building, the first in the late 1950s to commemorate the Second World War when an administration annexe with a large semi-circular courtyard was added to the southern rear. This extension is of concrete block construction rendered in cement stucco to harmonise with the Portland Stone of the earlier building. In 2006 the inner courtyard was enclosed by the grand atrium at the southern entrance.
Auckland Museum Collections and Exhibitions
The museum houses a large collection of Māori and Pacific Island artefacts, including Hotunui (an entire large carved meeting house built in 1878 at Thames), and Te Toki a Tapiri (a Māori war canoe from 1830 carved by Te Waaka Perohuka). The museum stores a photographic collection of 1.2 million images, and stores and exhibits 1.5 million natural history specimens from the fields of botany, entomology, geology, land vertebrates and marine biology. The stated goal is to eventually possess specimens from all New Zealand species.
There is also an extensive permanent exhibition covering wars, including wars within New Zealand and New Zealand’s participation in overseas conflicts. This exhibition is linked to the War Memorial (see below), and shows, for example, models of Maori pā (fortified settlements) and original Spitfire and Mitsubishi Zero aeroplanes. The Museum holds the largest collection of applied and decorative arts in New Zealand and selections are currently displayed in the Landmarks and Encounters Galleries.
The Auckland museum offers changing special exhibitions. In 2006 these included Da Vinci and Vikings exhibitions. The initial exhibition after the grand re-opening in early December 2006 was Vaka Moana, a show about the first Polynesianexplorers reaching New Zealand. Afterward, the exhibition started travelling the world for several years. In early 2009 the museum is host to a cast of the most complete (over 90%) Tyrannosaurus rex fossil ever found, nicknamed “Sue”.
Parts of the Auckland museum, as well as the Cenotaph and its surrounding consecrated grounds (Court of Honour) in front of the Museum, also serve as a war memorial, mainly to those who lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars. There are two ‘Halls of Memory’ within the museum, whose walls, together with a number of additional marble slabs, list the names of all known New Zealand soldiers from the Auckland Region killed in major conflicts during the 20th Century.
RSA representatives have noted that the Cenotaph area is in need of renovation, and also would like measures put in place that ensure the area is treated with more respect by people using the park or visiting the museum. Auckland City was considering replacement the old concrete paving with granite and basalt pavers. This was apparently decided against, possibly for cost reasons. The city has however conducted substantial remedial works, to improve the condition of the existing Court of Honour, including repairs to and lighting of the steps, uplighting of the Cenotaph, as well as general cleaning and a new interpretive engraving provided by the Auckland RSA.
In early 2010, Auckland City Council started work in front of the Court of Honour, up to then taken up by a smaller car park. The area is to be changed to provide a new water feature instead, and walkways and other infrastructure will also be upgraded. Work around the court is to be completed by Anzac Day 2010, with the remainder following in July 2010.
Hillary Estate – The memorabilia of the late Sir Edmund Hillary, first man to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, led to legal action between his children, Peter and Sarah Hillary, and the museum over publishing rights to his papers. New Zealand Prime Minister John Key offered to mediate, and his offer was accepted and the matter resolved amicably.
Vitali tenure – The appointment and activities of Dr Vanda Vitali, a Canadian citizen appointed new museum director in the late 2000s (until her resignation in 2010) saw a number of highly disputed changes in the museum, with numerous staff being made redundant, or having to reapply for their positions. The museum also charged a controversial “donation” for entry (while still claiming to provide free entry), despite a museum levy being part of the regional rates.
OPENING HOURS: DAILY 10AM – 5PM
The Auckland Domain
+ 64 9 309 0443