Te Papa Tongarewa (National Museum)

Te Papa Tongarewa (meaning ‘the place where we keep our special stuff’) is New Zealand’s National Museum. Well, maybe. There’s still the shell of the old museum up by the National War Memorial, and Auckland’s Memorial Museum is undoubtedly a ‘real’ museum; but no-one has ever quite been certain what this $300M extravaganza is all about.

Even Prime Minister Helen Clark, coming into office as Prime Minister in 1999, said something along the lines of ‘look, stop arguing; we’ve built the place, now we’ve got make it work’. Others have described it variously as a theme park, a cultural fast-food outlet, and a monument to the short attention span. It’s also very dark, and it can be deafeningly noisy at times.

Currently (2017) there is even less than usual in Te Papa, so if you must go there, here’s how to do it:

take the lift to the 6th floor, wander through the not-really-a-Marae, then have a quick squint out onto the roof terrace (but feel annoyed that you can’t really enjoy it)

skip the 5th floor (being rebuilt)

take a quick look at the Maori and Pacific stuff on the 4th floor, but beyond being vaguely respectful don’t feel you have to work too hard at it

do Blood Earth Fire on the 3rd floor – it’s a little more interesting than it looks.

do the Gallipoli exhibition on the 2nd floor (and expect to feel appalled at the end of it).

skip through the gift shop on the 1st floor and then go home – or perhaps stop at Mac’s Brewbar next door, a very nice stop for a beer and/or a burger.

On your way out, wonder how they managed to put a building so big on the best waterfront in the world with almost no views out from the inside and just a sense of uhh? from the outside.

There used to be a National Gallery here with lovely paintings: admittedly mainly of ships with immigrants, and sheep farmers, and politicians – and all of them European – but at least they took account of what the European heritage is here. Nowadays all this stuff has been pushed out, apparently in favour of an idea that the European experience can be captured in the pop music of the 1960s and a lot of trashy consumer stuff. ‘Modern New Zealand’, I think, is the idea – and it plays strongly on the thriving Kiwi industry of movies, computer-generated imagery and the work of Weta Workshops; but at the end of the day this isn’t European heritage.

Maori and Pacific Island heritage is, by contrast, featured generously with boats, houses, other structures, and a lot of stories. Through a lot of this there’s a not-very-subtle message that as a European I am an oppressor who breaks treaties, destroys indigenous communities and thinks I am better than anyone else. If the rationale of Te Papa is (a) to counter the historical museum imbalance and honour non-European cultures, and (b) to suggest European history is so ordinary that it’s not worth considering, then it seems to succeed rather well.

Happily, and after a lot of public protest, we’re promised the National gallery will come back again in 2018: indeed they’re currently rebuilding the 5th floor to accommodate it. But I suspect we can be fairly sure it’ll still be interlaced with ‘video installations’ and such stuff.

After all that, I genuinely think the best way to do Te Papa is to sit down at home with a mug of tea and spend an hour looking at the website – where there’s an awful lot that isn’t on display at the museum, and is generally a lot better than you might expect.



Very popular is this one-tonne granite ball which, because it sits on a cushion of water, can be turned with just the touch of a finger.

I’ve never quite figured out all the Maori-dom at Te Papa. This may be the Marae (meeting-house); or it may a fanciful recreation of one used for concerts and shows, but I have an idea it’s not considered a ‘real’ one – it’s not the right materials, or colours, or hasn’t been ‘initiated’ in the right way, or just isn’t used for the right things. Or all this may be irrelevant…

think the idea is that you do indeed crawl in, or at least stoop low. After all, it’s all you really need; and it would also impart respect and an element of security.


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