Wellington, New Zealand: Te Papa Tongarewa

DSC03305Te Papa, or the National Museum of New Zealand (the Maori name roughly translates to “the place of many treasures”) was similar in many ways to the Auckland Museum.  It was large, spread out over multiple stories, and featured a pretty kick-ass temporary exhibition.  Unlike the Auckland Museum, it had the added benefit of being free, temporary exhibit and all, which I’ve come to realise is extremely rare in New Zealand, especially for a museum of this calibre.  Because of its sheer size, this was the only museum I had time to see in Wellington (though I did take the time to see Harry McNeish’s grave, because of Mrs. Chippy (Mrs. Chippy’s story is pretty sad, and Harry McNeish also got a bit of a bum deal as a result)), but because it was so comprehensive, I don’t really feel as though I missed out.

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The highlight of the museum was undoubtedly its temporary exhibit, Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War, which was put together in collaboration with the Weta Workshop (the special effects company founded in part by Peter Jackson), who created these amazing giant soldier figures. Gallipoli is famously commemorated in New Zealand and Australia on ANZAC Day every year, but I think in Britain, we sometimes don’t realise just how huge of an impact the war had on this small country.  I discussed some of the casualty figures in the Auckland Museum post, but 2779 Kiwis were killed in Gallipoli alone, a full sixth of all the Kiwi soldiers fighting in the campaign, and I think Gallipoli is really where the war hit home for the people of New Zealand; even though a greater number of men would be killed on the Western Front, Gallipoli was the first major loss, which is why it is so well remembered to this day.

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We were warned on the website that there would probably be a queue for the exhibit, so we headed there first after arriving, and were indeed met with a queue, but decided to just go for it, because it might be worse later on.  As it turned out, the line moved fairly quickly, which was both good and bad; good because we didn’t have much of a wait, bad because the people in front of us didn’t really have time to clear out before we entered, so the exhibit was very crowded (when we were leaving the museum, there was no queue at all, so I think going in the afternoon is probably the better option.  We should really have gone back in then to appreciate it without the crowds, but we were so tired at that point we couldn’t be bothered).

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Obviously, the focal point of the exhibition was the giant figures, which were extremely lifelike (although maybe a bit too muscular. The soldiers I’ve been researching had an average height of about 5’4″-5’7″, and weighed somewhere between 110-140 lbs (how they met the minimum chest size requirement is beyond me), but I imagine their ANZAC counterparts could have been a bit beefier, having access to better food at home and such. Still, knowing all the problems they had with dysentery in the army, they must still have been depleted physically as the campaign stretched on, even if they joined up in good condition)), and rather moving , but the rest of the exhibit was pretty good too. It provided a comprehensive history of Gallipoli, including aspects of the battle, soldier life, and the home front.

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My main (bully) beef with the exhibit, as you can probably guess, was the crowds.  There were lots of great interactive things, and plenty of touchscreens where you could learn more about individual soldiers killed in the battle, but because there were so many people, I only got to use a couple of them.  I did, nonetheless, think it was very well put-together.  Although the big figures were the draw, they also had some charming miniatures, including a model of a hospital ship (complete with a teeny version of the soldiers’ bulldog mascot, adorable!).  They gave everyone a red poppy made of paper at the end, which you could either keep or write a message of remembrance on and throw in the lake surrounding the final soldier.  I think this exhibit is on til 2018, so I highly recommend stopping by if you find yourself in New Zealand before then.

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Now, onto the rest of the museum!  Like the Auckland Museum, they had a dedicated geology/volcano gallery, which I think may have also had an earthquake house, though we didn’t bother with going in this one after the rather underwhelming experience in Auckland.  However, the Natural History section was much better, because they have the only preserved colossal squid in any museum in the world!  I do think squids are hella gross, and this one was no exception, but since it was, you know, dead, and soaking in formaldehyde, it couldn’t try to suck my brain out or whatever it is squids do, so I was happy to look at it (though I couldn’t quite the keep the expression of disgust off my face).

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Because the children’s gallery was deserted, I was able to wander in and play a game to learn about my carbon footprint, and of course, crawl inside a model of a blue whale’s heart (I actually only crawled halfway in, because I was worried I might get stuck).  They also had an outside garden, which was understandably empty as it was right on the seafront and it was an extremely windy and rainy day, but that was fine with me, because I could jump up and down on the swing bridge without getting funny looks.  That swing bridge probably was the most fun I had all day, but they also had a little replica of a glow worm cave that was neat (though nowhere near as neat as the real thing).

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Heading back inside, we ventured up to the third floor, which not only contained a cannon from the Endeavour (awesome!), but a gallery about New Zealand before Europeans arrived, which of course included moa and other native animals, and a room where you could touch a rock from each corner of New Zealand (it had something to do with a Maori custom, but also touching stuff is fun).  There were also some fun interactives in here, including a game where you got to analyse moa poop (accompanied by hilarious farting sounds!  I’m not sure if birds can actually fart though).

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The fourth floor was all about the people of New Zealand, starting with Maori settlements, and moving up to the present day.  You were asked not to take pictures in the Maori section, so the lack of photos is not a deliberate omission on my part, but I have to say that I liked this gallery much better than the Auckland Museum’s Maori collections.  For one thing, the captions were much more detailed; even if they didn’t know what the exact provenance of an object was, they still described its meaning to the Maori people and what it was used for in great detail, which I appreciated, because it’s much easier to gain insight into a culture if some of their beliefs and customs are explained to you.  There were also a couple of beautiful marae, one of which is actually still used by the community.  The Maori history carried on with a gallery about the Treaty of Waitangi, where New Zealand (for better or worse) was handed over to the British.

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There were a couple small galleries on Pacific Islanders, who have immigrated to New Zealand in large numbers in recent years, for education and jobs.  I think my favourite object was the cow sculpture made of corned beef tins (all tinned food is referred to as pisupo in the Pacific Islands, because pea soup was the first canned thing to be imported), to highlight the problems associated with imported foods and the encroachment of the West on traditional cultures.  There were many more cool artefacts though, including some clothing made by contemporary designers, and a game where you could try navigating to New Zealand by the sun and stars.

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I loved the gallery about 19th century immigration; they had pull-out drawers (which required a fair amount of muscle to pull out!) containing the stories of immigrants from many different countries, a game where you could be the captain of an immigrant ship (I killed off a whole family from scarlet fever, but my ship made it into port in time, so yay?), and other ship-related fun. The gallery about early 20th century to modern day New Zealand was also delightful, with (you guessed it) more games, and junk about the Queen (for real, why are Kiwis so keen on the Royal Family?).

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The top two floors of the museum are known as Arts Te Papa, and are dedicated to the museum’s art collection (as you might expect).  The entire first room had drawing stations set up with mirrors, where you were encouraged to take selfies, draw a self portrait (me and my boyfriend actually drew pictures of each other, to change it up a bit; the one I drew still cracks me up), or write poetry using a magnetic wall full of random words.  I really enjoyed some of the paintings up here because they portrayed various sites we’d already seen around New Zealand as they looked a hundred or more years ago, and it was interesting to compare.  The photographic collection was also nice; I got to learn more about Opo the Friendly Dolphin, whose grave and statue we rather depressingly (and randomly) encountered on the beach in Opononi the week before. (I just learned there’s a song written about her!  I know what I’m listening to after I finish writing this post!)  The top floor was jewelley and ceramics, but we were both just too damn tired (and unconcerned about jewellery and ceramics) by that point to venture up, so I hope I didn’t miss anything amazing.

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To sum up, Te Papa has an excellent temporary exhibit, lots of cool permanent exhibits (and the only preserved colossal squid, if that matters to you), and is free, so there is absolutely no reason not to go.  If you’ve got a spare day in Wellington, fill it up with this (I must confess that I actually had two days in Wellington, but I spent the first one going to various sites from Braindead, because it’s one of my favourite films.  We even stayed right down the street from Lionel’s house (I could see it from our window!). I don’t regret this decision, because Te Papa + Braindead made for an excellent two days here).  4.5/5.





  1. Wow! Adding this to my list for when we get to NZ (maybe next year) – It isn’t often you give a really, really positive rating to a museum, so it must be good!

  2. Whoa, it’s like a fun house! (That sounds kinda flip, but I mean it respectfully – and with awe). I can’t get over how lifelike those giant statues are – they’re amazing. And even though that squid’s frozen in formaldehyde, I’d still have given it a wide berth. That big, weird baby game thing fascinates me – what on earth?

    1. The giant baby was another Weta Workshop thing (in the children’s gallery, no less!), and I’m still not entirely sure why it was there, other than maybe to show examples of Kiwi industry, but it freaked me out because it bore a certain resemblance to the annoying zombie baby in Braindead: http://www.top10hq.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Braindead.jpg which is not all that surprising since that was also a Peter Jackson production.

    1. Believe it or not, I have awarded a perfect score on occasion, when I’ve really really loved a place and it is more or less exactly tailored to my interests. FDR’s house and museum and the Forbidden Corner come to mind! (Actually, that’s a point, I should probably start tagging things by rating so people can find them more easily.) But yes, it was a very good museum!

  3. i’ve heard lots of positive things about this museum and also about its architecture. I was glad to read your commentary – I had actually imagined quite a different collection on display and really enjoyed your informative post.

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