Auckland, New Zealand: The Auckland War Memorial Museum


You might not know this about me, because I like to give the impression of thoroughness, but I’m generally a pretty speedy museum visitor, especially if the museum in question is crowded (I do generally at least skim over everything (it helps that I’m a fast reader), but I don’t tend to linger unless a museum has almost no other visitors AND is extraordinarily interesting).  That’s why I was amazed that we were in the Auckland Museum for a good four hours.  I genuinely can’t remember the last time I spent so long in a museum.  I’m not sure if that’s a ringing endorsement so much as the fact that our Air B&B was really far away, and I couldn’t be bothered to walk back when I’d just have to go to town again later…but no, I’m not being fair to the Auckland Museum, as it was actually pretty impressive (not to mention that I’d have just moved on to a different museum rather than spend the whole day there if it really sucked).  So let’s learn more about it, shall we?

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The Auckland Museum in its current state was first conceived of after the First World War as a kind of “living memorial” to the many ANZAC soldiers who died on Britain’s behalf.  So although the entire top floor is devoted to commemorating wars New Zealand fought in, and contains two memorial halls, the building itself is meant to be a memorial as well.  This also explains why the full name of the museum is the Auckland War Memorial Museum, even though the whole thing is not about war (this put me off a bit initially, not because I don’t enjoy military museums, but because I was worried that was all that was there.  Not to fear, there is indeed an extensive and varied collection).

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Basic admission to the museum, if you’re not a New Zealand resident, is 25 NZD, which I initially balked at, but by the end of the day, I think I probably did get my money’s worth (although Te Papa was free, and just as good, so there’s that…).  There are other admission packages that include Maori cultural performances or guided tours, but interactive cultural performances always put me off because I’m scared someone will try to make me dance or otherwise participate in front of strangers, and to be honest, the 45 NZD price tag was enough to deter me.  So just the museum it was then, but fortunately that included access to all the permanent and temporary exhibitions.

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I say “fortunately” because Air New Zealand sponsored a temporary exhibit about the history of their airline that was probably my favourite part of the whole museum.  We spent over an hour in there alone!  You’d think after spending over a whole day on a plane en route to New Zealand, I’d be reluctant to have anything to do with them for a long time (or at least until my flight home), but that was not the case here.  I was drawn in by the mock-ups of retro New Zealand aircraft, and by the collection of hideous uniforms worn by flight attendants over the years (seriously, their hats were incredibly ugly.  The ones from the 60s looked like they were about to go foxhunting or something, albeit whilst wearing a mod mini-dress and white vinyl thigh boots).  And I did very much enjoy going into the old planes to see the kind of luxury (and leg room) I was missing out on with modern planes (they can keep some of their disgusting menu items though.  I mean, plane food is disgusting today (except for the Hokey Pokey cookies they gave us on the flight from Kerikeri to Auckland; those were delicious), but at least it’s not jellied like most stuff in the ’60s seemed to be), but the best bits were probably all the interactive things.

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They had games, touch screens where you could learn more about planes, a kiosk where you could design your own airplane exterior, and even a special virtual reality room where you got to experience a four minute virtual tour around the airplane of the future (part of me suspects it was a vision of the future akin to EPCOT in Disneyworld, i.e. it sounds cool, but will never end up happening, but it was still fun.  Except for the teenagers in there going, “man, this is trippy” every three seconds.  You’re not actually high, so it’s not trippy.  Now please shut up).  There was also information about the time the Queen flew on an Air New Zealand commercial flight (they are oddly keen on the royals there), the airline’s various mascots over the years (including that very creepy squirrel above the last paragraph), and the sight-seeing flights to Antarctica in the 1970s that ended in tragedy when one of them crashed into Mount Erebus, killing everyone aboard (it remains the worst air disaster by far in New Zealand’s history).  They even had a groovy gift shop, where you could purchase old advertising poster designs on prints and postcards.

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But being that this was only a temporary exhibit, I should probably move on to the permanent collections.  The museum opened with a history of design that I admit I rushed through pretty quickly, because it was full of European objects that I could see anywhere, and I was keen to see the artefacts that were uniquely Kiwi.  However, the middle of the ground floor is taken up with a Maori Court, which includes a couple of traditional buildings; one of them is still under construction, but you’re allowed inside, if you remove your shoes (as a sign of respect…this was very welcome after walking around in hard soled sandals all day, but sadly I had to put them back on to see the rest of the museum).  There was also a portraiture exhibit that I enjoyed; there’s something so interesting about the juxtaposition of heavily tattooed Maori people wearing 19th century dress clothes, painted by European artists in a traditional portrait style.

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There was an entire gallery  of Maori and Pacific Islands artefacts down here as well; unfortunately, I found the captions a bit sparse compared to the Western artefacts (especially after seeing what Te Papa did with similar artefacts…that post is coming soon!), perhaps because it’s harder to say much about each object if you don’t know their specific provenance, other than what they were used for.

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This poor old elephant was called Rajah, and he once lived at the Auckland Zoo, but he was killed because he was taken from the wild, so obviously didn’t do well in captivity, and the keepers worried he was becoming too aggressive.  I mean, this was in the 1930s, so not a recent thing, but I still felt horrible for poor Rajah.  Surely the kind thing to do would have been to ship him back to the wild, rather than have him put down, preserved, and plonked in the middle of a New Zealand childhood exhibition.  This exhibit was rife with actual New Zealand schoolchildren running rampant, so I didn’t linger, but how creepy are those dolls, particularly the one on the left?!  She looks like she’s got a secret, and the secret is that she murdered your entire family while you were asleep.  [Shudder]

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The last thing on the ground floor was the history of New Zealand settlement (by Europeans), as told through the various beautiful objects on display; again, although these things looked nice, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in here because many of the things were English in origin, and I could see similar stuff at home; or related to the kauri trade, which I’d already learned about extensively at the Kauri Museum.  Besides, a dishy young Edmund Hillary, floppy hair and toothy grin and all, was waiting in the stairwell, practically calling my name, along with the ice axe he used to climb Mount Everest.

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Also, there was a volcano gallery upstairs, and naturally my geologist boyfriend was keen to see it (he being less convinced about the attractiveness of a young Edmund Hillary.  Seriously, Hillary’s on the $5 New Zealand notes, and he looks foxier on those than he did in real life, so I kept one for my personal collection).  Auckland is built on a number of volcanoes (I think something like 49 of them, though most are dormant), and if one of the active ones decides to blow, the city is screwed, essentially.

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This idea was explored further in a special volcano simulator, wherein the premise was that one of the volcanoes was going to blow and engulf the city.  Basically, we sat down on a couch and watched a fake news broadcast, then the room shook a bit.  I’m glad we only waited a couple minutes for it, because it was rather lame.  Still, all the information about volcanoes was interesting, including the stories of various ones around the world that had exploded in recent history.

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There were a number of galleries featuring the art of different cultures up here (Japanese pottery, ancient Egypt, Pacific Island art, etc), but I didn’t really spend much time looking at them, because natural history!  They had a skeleton of a giant moa, and also a reconstruction of one.  I don’t think hunting things to extinction is a good thing (obviously), but I would have done the same where the moa is concerned…if I saw a bird that looked like that coming towards me, my instinct would be to kill it before it killed me.  Damn.  Emus are bad enough, as I would learn in Australia.

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There were also taxidermy versions of modern New Zealand birds (I have to say, kiwis don’t really do it for me, but I love a morepork.  Even their name is adorable) and other animals (the bat is the only native mammal, but plenty of other things have since been brought in and call the islands home.  Some of them, like possums, you’re positively encouraged to kill, as they’re seen as pests).  And re-creations of native environments, like the cave (crawling with disgusting giant cave wetas, more on them in a future post) and kauri forests.  Additionally, there was a special children’s gallery on the weird and wonderful that I cut through, because it did look rather wonderful (and there were no children in sight).  This was very Victorian-inspired, and contained even more hilarious taxidermy than what was available in the normal adult gallery.

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By then, it was time to explore the final floor (because I was getting hangry and tired), which was about war.  Apparently they’re busy constructing some new galleries, but the stuff they already have is pretty good.  It began with some colonial wars against the Maori, and New Zealand’s participation in British conflicts, like the Boer War, but quickly moved on to WWI, which was the main focus.  I suppose it wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen at other WWI museums (mock-ups of trenches, weaponry, etc), but it was very well put-together, and the perspective was a unique one; it seemed particularly unfair that the ANZAC soldiers were so hard hit when they were fighting so far away from home in a war that really had nothing to do with them.  18,166 Kiwi soldiers were killed; the population of the country was only 1 million at the time, so you can imagine what a significant loss this was.

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There was also a special exhibit about the impact of the war on the home front, which showed that of course, not everyone was eager to sign up, and honoured the courage of those who followed their convictions and chose not to fight, despite facing imprisonment and hard labour.  This was all very nicely done, and the memorial hall is a lovely tribute to the many, many soldiers who never made it home again, whose names are inscribed on the walls.  Also inside the memorial hall were smaller rooms dedicated to Holocaust remembrance, and the history of the museum itself, which is where I learned about the concept of the museum serving as a living memorial.

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WWII, which New Zealand also of course participated in, was not neglected either; fallen soldiers got their own memorial hall, and there was a whole gallery about this war as well.  Two special rooms, containing a Zero and a Spitfire, flanked this gallery (you could start up a Spitfire engine with a touch of your palm, which was especially neat), and I thought the section on kamikaze pilots was fascinating.  One of them, who donated objects to the museum later in life, only survived because the mechanics took their time making repairs to his plane in hopes that the war would end before his scheduled mission…because they managed to drag the repairs out until August, they saved the pilot’s life.

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So as you can probably tell from this extremely lengthy post, this was actually a very good museum.  Whilst I think it had its weaknesses (lack of detailed captions on some Pacific Island artefacts, too much focus in some places on European art, though I can somewhat understand the latter; for Kiwis who haven’t made it over to Europe, I suppose this would be something of a novelty), the temporary exhibition on Air New Zealand was excellent – really a lot of fun, and I think the war galleries were beautifully done as well.  Because I spent four hours here, I think it deserves a commensurate score.  4/5.