The Auckland Museum sits in a prominent position on the edge of an extinct volcano (Pukekawa). It is perhaps one of the cities more imposing buildings, made more so by the lack of any other building around it and sitting within the extensive parkland that is the Auckland Domain.
My memories of the museum go back to when I was a teenager who attended a nearby boarding school. The museum provided an excellent excuse to be out of the hostel and to meet boys on the weekends. It was a very different place then. Then it was a tired and dusty kind of place, where the displays never changed and even on the weekends a person could almost have the place to themselves. Now, however, (with the exception of pandemics and lockdowns) the museum hums with activity.
The Auckland Museum began life in a two-room cottage in nearby Grafton – one room held the collections and the other was for the curator. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for the museum to outgrow its first home. In 1867 the museum was relocated to the Provincial Council Building but then moved three years later to the old Post Office building in Princes St. But by 1876 the museum was on the move again, this time just along the road to a purpose-built building.
Its success led by curator Thomas Cheeseman necessitated one more final move. The building which now houses the many and varied collections was the result of a world-wide architectural competition to design a new museum for Auckland. Part of the brief was to include a memorial to soldiers lost in the recent conflict of World War One. The winner was an Auckland company called Grierson, Aimer and Draffin who designed a neo-classical building built using Portland stone – with an area in front of the building of consecrated ground – the Court of Honour and Cenotaph for the fallen whose bodies could not be brought home.
The Auckland War Memorial Museum was officially opened on the 28th of November 1929. Since then, there have been a variety of changes, after the second world war the building was extended to include memorials for the 4000 plus Auckland who lost their lives during that conflict. The semi-circular extension at the rear of the building provided much needed space for the ever-expanding collections, as well as providing space for the Hall of Memories which lists the names of those who were lost in conflicts of the twentieth century.
In the years prior to the new millennium the museum began its transformation from the tired old museum of my teenage years to what the visitor experiences today.
Today the museum combines the old and new in an effort to pay homage to its beginnings whilst at the same time looking to the future and the role museums have to play in that future. There are two entrances to the museum, one on the north side (pictured above) and the other on the south side. The northern doors look over the cenotaph out towards the city of Auckland, the harbour and port. They are the original entrance in the neo-classical façade, the bronze doors decorated with a poppy design (a symbol of death in war), the entrance foyer filled with Greek styled columns, the marble terrazzo floor all hark back to a time of opulence and grandeur and is suitably referred to as ‘the Grand Foyer’.
The southern entrance is the newer and nowadays the flashier of the two – it has only relatively recently been refurbished and redesigned. It is in my mind the youngster who really, really wants your attention. A wide-open space greets the visitor, works of art and digital displays vie for your attention. The vast space is dominated by a timber bowl shaped space that seems to hang from the roof. It is almost a building within a building. The ‘bowl’ houses the learning lab and the auditorium whilst its uppermost floor forms the event center.
The new southern atrium (Te Ao Marama) also houses the information desks, the shop, the café/bistro and other necessary amenities. On the right-hand side there is a space which is used for visiting exhibitions (the last one was ‘Sea Monsters’ and the next is ‘Secrets of Stonehenge’). Left of this space the visitors first stop is through the museum’s newest gallery ‘Stories of Auckland – Tamaki Herenga Waka’. Here you are encouraged to explore the people and places of Auckland.
As a long-time resident of Auckland, I found this exhibition oddly familiar, much of the history of the city is well known to me but there were still points of interest that were new. The story of Auckland is told through a number of different mediums from traditional glass case containing objects and the stories behind them to an almost 3D experience of Auckland history. Although the covid pandemic has rendered many of the hands on displays off limits, I can appreciate that there would be much for all ages to engage with.
Separating the two entrance spaces is the Māori Court with a full-sized war canoe/waka carved from a giant totara tree. There are also two buildings – one is Hotuni, the meeting house which the visitor can enter but please remember to remove your shoes. The gallery itself houses some one thousand objects from all around New Zealand that tell the story of the Māori from their arrival and settlement of the landscape (apologies for the lack of photos for these galleries, many of the objects are regarded as sacred – taonga - and thus photos are inappropriate in this context).
There are two further galleries on the ground floor, on either side of the Grand Foyer, these are the Pacific Lifeways and Pacific Masterpieces galleries. Lifeways considers the diversity of island communities across the Pacific, whilst Masterpieces showcases some of the most important and beautiful art and artefacts from across the Pacific (this was always my son’s favourite room with its fearsome spears, axes and clubs).
The museum is itself spread over three floors, with the uppermost floor being dedicated to the memorials for fallen soldiers and displays covering the various conflicts New Zealand has been involved in. As part of its commitment to being a museum of commemoration there is also a War Memorial Discovery Center (Pou Maumahara). Here visitors can research and learn about New Zealand servicemen and women, it is also the home of the Online Cenotaph for "families to explore, contribute to, and share the records and stories of those who served for Aotearoa New Zealand.”
Level One (the middle floor) is loosely themed around the natural world. Here you will find a gallery dedicated to volcanoes (Auckland has over fifty of them), the Māori natural world, dinosaurs (always a kid favourite), the world of birds, bugs and other creatures found in New Zealand. There is also a dedicated gallery for the children called ‘Weird and Wonderful’ which is joined by the newly created Imaginarium and Learning Lab where many of the school groups begin their visit. As part of the Learning Lab space there is currently a paid exhibition for the school holidays – ‘The Antratica VR Experience’. The final two galleries on this floor are tucked away but are worth a visit – Ancient Worlds and Arts of Asia. Both galleries are a result of the active collecting that occurred during the early twentieth century and represent a small portion of the objects held in museum storage.
As mentioned earlier my fondness for the Auckland Museum goes back many years, from teenager shenanigans to days out with my own children and to nowadays when I volunteer with the Archaeology team down in the deep basement. I have seen it change and evolve over the years, as we all must do if we are to survive and although some of the newer parts leave me feeling a little unsure there is still enough of the old museum to keep me happy.
The Auckland Museum is open every day (except Christmas Day) from 10am-5pm Mon-Fri and 9am-5pm Sat/Sun and public holidays.
Parking is available free of charge in the Domain but please keep an eye on the times as there is a limit of three hours in some parts and two hours in others. The Museum does have a private underground carpark which you will need to pay for.
As with all museums there is no food or drink to be brought into the galleries. There are two cafes with seating in both the northern and southern entrances. For those who wish to bring their own food there is a dedicated space left of the entrance in the Te Ao Marama called the Kai Room and of course there are plenty of pleasant outside spaces to enjoy a picnic.
There are also Daily Tours – more information can be found at the ticket desk – including trips to the roof, a visit to the basement and a fascinating walk and talk about the building’s heritage.
Admission costs – at the present there is no charge for visitors. In normal times (non-covid) the museum is free to all Aucklanders; other New Zealanders are asked to make a donation and international visitors are required to buy a ticket.
Covid restrictions are currently in place, these include – scanning of the vaccine pass; using the NZ covid tracer app and wearing a mask at all times (for those over 12yrs).
The museum has a comprehensive website where you can discover more about the exhibitions, the galleries, explore the collections and read a variety of articles from members of staff.
Address: Auckland War Memorial Museum, The Auckland Domain, Parnell, Auckland, New Zealand - Phone +64 9 309 0443
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Toni-maree currently lives in Auckland, New Zealand where she volunteers for the Auckland War Memorial Museum. You can usually find her in depths of the basement helping/hindering the archaeology department, where it's always time for coffee. Museums have always been her happy place. Beyond her love of museums Toni-maree's other passions include archaeology, writing, storytelling and long dog walks. Feel free to check out her blog - www.tmrowe.com for a range of articles about the past. PS The photo is me enjoying Holi festival...I don't normally go around covered in paint...