Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand)

Hmm… Te Papa.

Te Papa Tongarewa (meaning ‘the place of our treasures’) is the Museum of New Zealand. 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 it’s not entirely clear what Te Papa is.

Events venue might be a better description, or an entertainment centre, a restaurant complex or a place where Wellington Society can show off to itself. Or perhaps an attempt at a first-grade Maori Cultural Facility, on the grounds of restoring a balance in this officially bi-communal country.

Less kind commentators have called it a theme park, a cultural fast-food outlet, and a monument to the short attention span. It does after all have no less than 8 Function Spaces, and you can even hire the Treaty of Waitangi for your (exclusively white, it would seem) cocktail party

What the museum itself offers is ‘a bi-cultural partnership between indigenous people and non-indigenous’. This sounds very modern and tolerant, but it rather depends who’s saying it, and the way it works out across the museum feels like a suggestion that if we all embrace our peaceful nature-loving Maori roots and creation myths then we can all live together in South Pacific harmony. That makes some rather cheeky assumptions, not least that the Maori are happy having their culture appropriated (yet again) by Europeans, and that those of European origin will buy into it on the grounds that (a) after all, they’re not indigenous but immigrants, (b) their traditional religion is a bit silly and their violent history is nothing to be proud of, and (c) their myths don’t relate to this land in the first place and can therefore be dismissed.

Still, we’ll leave that fascinating discussion to another day. What really annoys me about Te Papa is that architecturally it’s a huge disappointment. A fabulous opportunity on the best waterfront in the world, it fails to capitalise at all on the views looking out; and neither does it try very hard to invite you in. There’s no space inside that makes you feel remotely wow, and it’s full of quirks which fail to deliver anything (e.g. the Wellington Forum window and bits of landings which don’t lead anywhere.)

Some of it was designed to house particular Maori ceremonies (e.g. the big ceremonial stairway and ramp between the 2nd and 4th floors), but even if these still happen (a bit doubtful) it means the rest of the year there are acres of space just forlornly unused. And it doesn’t help that many details weren’t got right in the first place (e.g. the many crosswalks and the roof terraces), resulting in some really weird compromises.

I invariably come away from Te Papa feeling empty and with a deep sense of pointlessness, though after about 20 visits I’ve collected enough photographs and information to feel affection for some of the stuff that’s in the place. And the website, by contrast, is helpful and educative – particularly when I look something up after seeing it in the building – which suggests the problem really is with the venue rather than the collections.

But if you must go there, here’s my slightly jaundiced guide…

6th Floor

Take the lift up from the entrance to the 4th floor, then wander towards the cafe and take another lift to the 6th floor (they couldn’t make the journey easy…) Duck out onto the roof terrace, but don’t expect to see much of a view or to enjoy even what there is. The original parapets as built were too low, so they’ve installed a lot of rather intrusive glass panels between you and the view.

Spend a minute looking at a very small exhibition of quite interesting pots by John Parker…

5th Floor

Figure out how to skip the 5th floor (being rebuilt)…

4th Floor

Back on the 4th floor, marvel at more building work – then drift past The Mixing Room, an exhibition about recent refugees (it may be very worthy but it’s largely video, which I can’t be bothered with.) Instead, head for Passports.

Try not to feel patronised by the idea that this rather small exhibition is the museum’s main offering on ‘all nationalities other than Maori’, or by a few barnacle-encrusted displays from ship-board life:

Do stop to enjoy two particularly good paintings, and consider that there are loads more like this in the National Art Collection… yes, the one we’re hoping might be back again once they finish rebuilding the 5th floor.

The Te Papa website suggests with a slightly sneering tone that the The Emigrants is a bogus ensemble got up to spin a rather-better-than-true story about a family who are just setting off for New Zealand. (Implication: And isn’t that just typical of the white immigrants.) Personally I find the picture rather charming and I don’t see why if you’re making the perilous journey to New Zealand you shouldn’t try to show yourselves in a good light… but there we go.

Feeling slightly under-nourished by Passports, move on to the larger spaces devoted to Pacific People, the Treaty of Waitangi: Signs of a Nation, and Mana Whenua, which marks the Maori dimension as the indigenous people (or at least indigenous once the Europeans got here, and ignoring the fact that the Maori themselves were immigrants from about 1450.) Although much larger I’ve never found these exhibits particularly inspiring or easy to digest: it’s just not clear whether we’re meant to invest this stuff with great meaning or simply to think ‘nice craftsmanship’ and move on. How to compare it with the European stuff is a mystery, though perhaps that’s the point – it’s really rather difficult to ‘compare’ cultures. And again the websites seem to make more sense of it all.

The Treaty in particular is one of the core documents defining New Zealand, still very much debated in legal and political circles – but I’ve never found the exhibit in the Museum very enlightening other than to tell me once again the British reneged on it before the ink was even dry.

What does make people pause is taking their shoes off to stand in the (three) traditional Maori Communal Houses with feelings of some awe and reverence. Sadly photography is banned there so I don’t have anything to show other than one that I took from the Te Papa website (where it’s evidently OK to have a photograph.) It’s quite beautifully constructed, with much of the decoration woven from New Zealand flax:

At the end of the Maori section is … well, is it a Marae (a Meeting Place) with a formal Meeting House, or not? Apparently it is, though the colours are completely unlike the dark-brown/white that you’d see in a usual Meeting House, and it doesn’t seem to embody much of the usual reverence. It’s apparently a ‘Marae for everyone’, though you wonder if anywhere else would simply call this an ‘events space’. Actually rather few events ever seem to happen here, though the website shows the odd conference in progress; but it’s nice to look at, a lot of work has been put into the detail, and there is a stunning coloured window to go with it.

If you want to know more, particularly on the significance of every last detail and the blanketing cultural stance that’s being postulated for us all, click here for Te Papa’s explanation of what it’s all about.

If by now you feel you need some daylight, go out on to the balcony – though again in Te Papa’s bizarre way most of the harbour view is blocked by locked gates and glass screens. More problems with low parapets, it would seem.

Hurry back in and consider stopping at the cafe, but don’t leave it too late. And wonder why with such a glorious view outside they couldn’t have given the cafe a window…or at least a dinosaur or a blue whale.

3rd Floor

One thing Te Papa does right is to put the ‘treasures’ on the upper floors – it is after all built on reclaimed land on the edge of a harbour where earthquakes and tsunami must be expected. So from the 3rd floor downwards everything counts as ‘interesting’ but not as ‘irreplacable national treasures’.

There isn’t a lot on the 3rd floor, but Blood Earth Fire is worth a look. Very hard to photograph since the exhibits are mainly stuffed animals in glass cabinets, but it does give a picture of the settlement of New Zealand over the last 600 years. Interestingly it admits that Maori culture had already cleared about 50% of the forest before the Europeans arrived, though it rightly castigates the violence with which the incomers set about it once they got going. In an effort to redress the environmental balance, there’s some positive video from modern farmers and land campaigners talking about the importance of keeping and restoring the glorious countryside that’s here. And there’s a bit of quirky culture too, including Fred Dagg and Footrot Flats:

It’s all presented very well at Blood Earth Fire.

Also on this floor is Rugby Legends: the Spirit of the Black Jersey, a small exhibition of New Zealand rugby history including a couple of silver and gold cups and some tatty old rugby jerseys. Well, if it’s your thing…

Lastly there is the Britten Motorcycle. I don’t get it’s cultural significance but evidently he was a Kiwi hero who – once again – built a better machine than the rest of the world could possibly have imagined.

2nd Floor

The 2nd floor is the main attractions area, with three experiences covering earthquakes, wildlife and usually a big audio-visual thing – made all the better with the fabulous local skills of Weta Workshop. The current extravaganza is Gallipoli: the Scale of our War, which is predictably shocking and overwhelming. Not for the faint-hearted, but Te Papa and Wet deserves a ‘well done’ for the way they’ve handled this terrible event in New Zealand and British history.

Awesome Forces deals with earthquakes: it’s a must-do when you live in the Shaky Isles. You can stand in the Edgecombe House as it gets hit by an earthquake, learn about plate tectonics, and generally get earthquaked out.

Mountains to Sea is a standard museum exhibit with stuffed animals and a bit of vegetation, trying to cover the variety of terrain and wildlife that you might encounter in New Zealand. These things never thrill me, but it’s worthy enough. And it does feature – though I’ve never spent much time with – the Colossal Squid, which is indeed truly colossal.

At this point you can walk down the stairs to the 1st floor, but more interesting is to find the 2nd floor exit to Bush City, cross the little bridge and get yourself slightly lost in a bit of fake New Zealand countryside. Supposedly you can even visit a Glow-worm Cave, though I think it was closed when I was there. It’s all a bit better than you might imagine, and it’s certainly a pleasant break from the stuffy darkness of the museum.

Wander through here for 10 minutes then come back into the museum through the cafe on the 1st floor. The cafe itself is largely self-service and is less ‘up itself’ than the 4th floor one; it can get a bit full of screaming children, but pick your moment and it’s pleasant enough.

1st Floor

We’re nearly done, but you mustn’t miss the one-tonne granite ball which, because it sits on a cushion of moving water, can be turned with just the touch of a finger. There’s almost always a crowd of people enjoying this one…

All that’s left in the building itself is the museum shop – which really is rather good – but there’s one last stop to make. Go outside, walk left across the entry plaza and go down some steps under the grey stone outcrop…

The Base Isolator

Earthquakes? Pah… we’re New Zealanders! We invented the Base Isolator – an amazing technology of rubber and lead which we place under every building as a protection against earthquakes. These things can shear sideways up to 30cm (1ft) as well as bouncing up and down, and they’re the clever answer to keeping everything standing the next time the Pacific Plate decides to sneak just a little further under the Australian one.

To put your National Treasures on top of a known earthquake zone, on reclaimed land at the edge of a harbour where you expect a tsunami some day…well, that’s Kiwi spirit for you.

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