Museums are places of learning. You get a glimpse into past lives to discover what was normality for so many people who came before us. Science, history, art; the essence of human civilisation. But the very best museums step beyond just artefacts to make you feel. They make you understand what it is to be human. Without a doubt, Te Papa achieves that. But is Te Papa the best museum in New Zealand?
As the national museum of New Zealand in the capital city of Wellington, Te Papa has a lot to live up to. For visitors to New Zealand, that puts it on a pedestal with places like the Imperial War Museum and British Museum in London, or the many Smithsonians in Washington DC. Its official name is the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Already it’s off to a good start, setting the tone for a bicultural journey that splits the focus between the indigenous Maori, European settlers and more recent immigrants. Te Papa Tongarewa roughly translates as “the place of treasures of this land“. Despite its current fame on many top ten Wellington lists, it is relatively new to the world. The museum was opened in 1998, although its predecessors (the Dominion/Colonial Museum) date back to 1865.
Finding Te Papa
It’s impossible to miss Te Papa as you approach. The building is enormous and modern, right on the waterfront and nestled between a boat shed and Waitangi Park. You can walk there in half an hour or less from nearly all of the major attractions in Wellington, or get a bus to the nearby Courtenay Place. There’s even a car park on site if you want to drive. When you enter, you find the first thing that puts Te Papa on the same level as the great museums of London or DC – entry is free. Price isn’t everything, but it demonstrates the commitment to making this a place for everyone to learn.
The Best of Te Papa
Museums are made by their highlights. These are the first things you mention when someone asks what you thought of the museum. In this case, my top Te Papa highlight is what I mention if someone asks me about Wellington as a whole.
Te Papa steps up its offerings again with Bush City. Not many museums have an outdoor section. In fact museums are often thought of as rainy day activities, but here that doesn’t have to be the case. Accessed from Level 2, Bush City is a walk through wilderness with a cave and fossil dig among its highlights. The bush is still growing; come back in twenty years and it will look very different.
Gallipoli: The scale of our war
I said it before in my 2 week New Zealand itinerary – the Gallipoli exhibition at Te Papa is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. And I have been to a lot of museums. Te Papa partnered with the Weta Workshop to draw you into the lives of real people who lived through the disaster of Gallipoli – an 8 month campaign in Turkey during WWI that ended with 35,000 ANZAC casualties. Enormous, intricately detailed models tell the stories of soldiers, commanders and nurses, several of whom died, and transport you back to a terrible time. The colours are muted, the atmosphere sombre, and the detail incredible. It’s only open until April 2019 – do not miss it.
A showcase of Maori art & design, this exhibit dives deeper into Te Papa’s bicultural focus and can also be hired out for events. It contains a large wharenui (meeting house), carvings and many other Maori artefacts.
What else is there to see at Te Papa?
Plenty – Te Papa is enormous! There are 4 floors to explore, all with multiple exhibits, plus a viewing terrace on the top floor for views out across Wellington’s harbour. There’s a great mix of large and small artefacts across social and natural history.
On the ground floor you will find many standard museum features – the cafe, the shop, the cloakroom, the stacks of information leaflets and maps. But there’s also a bar and two outside areas: the Quake Braker and Bush City. You don’t even have to enter Te Papa to see Quake Braker. This is outside the main entrance and is a view through to Te Papa’s base isolators – what protects the museum in case of an earthquake.
Walk up the stairs to find the information desk, Gallipoli and Te Papa’s natural history exhibitions – Mountains to Sea and Awesome Forces. Mountains to Sea is in essence a natural history museum, containing the world’s largest giant squid, while Awesome Forces explores the turbulent volcanoes and earthquakes that have formed New Zealand’s landscape.
Level 3 is fairly small, containing a brief history of Te Papa and Blood Earth Fire, which examines the transitions in New Zealand when the first settlers, Maori and European, arrived.
Social history is on offer on level 4 with a high number of exhibitions covering everything from the Treaty of Waitangi (New Zealand’s founding document), Pacific Islander immigrants, refugee stories from the past few decades plus two discovery centres aimed at children.
How could Te Papa improve?
Nothing is perfect, and there are a couple of ways that Te Papa could improve. The opening hours are 10am-6pm, with the option to pay $15 for early entry from 9am to the Gallipoli exhibit. This is on par with other big museums, and is maybe not a surprise considering entrance is free – but one day a week with late night opening would be a big plus. I didn’t get to see everything in my 4 hours there before closing time.
The only real negative I noticed was that some of the technology is a little dated – the computer screens especially looked very old in some places, with low resolution and small screens. Technology moves so fast that it becomes obvious very quickly if you don’t keep it up to date.
Is Te Papa the best museum in New Zealand?
What else compares? The Auckland War Memorial Museum and the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch are both large with interesting exhibits, but aren’t on the same scale as Te Papa. Galipolli is the crowning highlight of a massive collection covering natural and social history from around the entire country. More than that, it makes a real effort to represent all of the country’s people; something many other museums around the world should take note of.
There’s no doubt that Te Papa is one of the best museums in Oceania. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is one of the best museums in the world.
What are your favourite museums around the world? Tell me in the comments below!